Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Craig Ferguson and Jay Leno have all left their long-running late-night perches. And now Mario Kreutzberger (known by his stage name Don Francisco), the Chilean-born creator and host of Univision’s Saturday night extravaganza “Sabado Gigante” (“Giant Saturday”), is signing off for the last time on Sept. 19 when the show’s record-breaking 53-year reign as the longest-running TV show in the world comes to an end.
The variety format show, which launched in Chile in 1962 before expanding Stateside, features a frenetic mix of contests, sing-alongs, and music acts, as well as other live entertainment. Details of its three-hour finale (the show’s standard run-time) are still under wraps but it will include highlights of past shows and a constellation of guests, among them celebrated Latin American recording artists Enrique Iglesias, Luis Fonsi, Paulina Rubio and Juanes.
“We want to do something very special, something very meaningful that will touch the hearts of the people who work here and our viewers,” says Don Francisco who turns 75 in December.
A child of German-Jewish Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Chile, Don Francisco has a profound appreciation for the power of perseverance. He credits hard work, strong audience participation and an ability to adapt with changes in society and pop culture as keys to “Sabado Gigante’s” unparalleled longevity.
“We went from airing in black and white (in the early days) to including social media in our shows,” he says.
But there were myriad hurdles to starting a show in the U.S. For starters, Univision lacked the infrastructure for a show like “Sabado Gigante.” Initially, it was also difficult to book Spanish-speaking contestants and guests because Hispanics weren’t used to participating in TV shows in the U.S.
“The pilot was so bad, we had to scrap it,” says longtime “Sabado Gigante” executive producer Antonio “Cuco” Arias.
The show first aired in Miami, but it was a series of successful test screenings in Phoenix that proved to Univision execs they were sitting on a bona fide hit.
|Hat’s Off: Don Francisco will feature an array of Latin American artists and acts in his finale.|
Advertisers and audience members were especially enamored by the show’s novel and fun twist in which Don Francisco, the audience, and a core group of models sang the jingles to products being hawked on air.
“People were singing jingles to products not even available in Phoenix,” Arias remembers.
After that, Univision made the decision to air “Sabado Gigante” nationwide. Currently, the show reaches households around the world through Univision’s cable network, Galavision.
But despite its early success, there were bumps along the way. After airing for 22 years straight in Chile, “Sabado Gigante” was replaced by another show. A flood of protesting phone calls to Canal 13 forced the station to reinstate it immediately.
The show was cancelled a second time in April 1986, roughly a month after launching on Univision. The network, then run by Joaquin Blaya, was ready to pull the plug, citing costs as the reason. Don Francisco and his team agreed to a 50% cut in pay for the show to continue.
Not a single Saturday was missed.
“We were saved by the ‘culito,’” Don Francisco recalls, referring to the dance that prompted the studio audience and contestants to wiggle their behinds. The segment became a huge hit, boosting the show’s ratings to a level Univision couldn’t ignore.
For about six years, Don Francisco shuttled between Miami and Santiago, spending 3½ days in each city. During this period, he got into two car accidents en route to the airport. In one incident, the man whose car Don Francisco hit recognized the TV host and rushed him to the airport. Per Arias, who took over the producing reins some three months after it launched on Univision, Don Francisco was so prominent in Chile that the planes would wait to take off if he was running late. In his memoir “Entre la Espada y la TV,” Don Francisco recalls the time a pilot waited 55 minutes for him to show up.
The host’s popularity wasn’t just for show — he was also well-loved behind the scenes by the cast and crew.
“Don Francisco has been like a father, a mentor to me,” says Lili Estefan, the longest-serving model on the program, who left in 1998 after more than 12 years to co-host the gossip show “El Gordo y la Flaca” (“The Scoop and the Skinny”). “I had my first break in show business on ‘Sabado Gigante.’”
But in recent years, the show slipped in popularity, losing ground with young audiences who began migrating to alternative media platforms for their entertainment fix, a phenomenon impacting all traditional linear television. Nevertheless, “Sabado Gigante” is the No. 1 regularly scheduled program in the current season among bilingual millennials (18- to 34-year-olds) and bilingual Hispanic adults 18-49 on Saturday night.
“In 2012, when ‘Sabado Gigante’ celebrated its 50th year, Univision offered to extend my contract for three more years, until 2015, and asked me to develop new talent for the same format,” Don Francisco says. “But in these past three years, television content has changed and formats have shortened. Univision told me this year that they were ending the show’s format, and I said I would explore other formats for them. After all, I used to host interview and game shows in the past. So that’s where I am now.”
Plans are now to replace “Sabado Gigante” on Oct. 17 with the two-hour Televisa variety program “Sabadazo” and a new one-hour Saturday edition of entertainment news show “Sal y Pimienta,” which will also air on its standard Sunday slot. “Sabadazo” aired on Univision from September 2012 to July 2015. In Mexico, it aired mornings since 2010, before moving to an evening slot last year, and has featured some of Mexico’s leading comics, led by Omar Chaparro, hosts Cecilia Galliano and Laura G as well as musical and acting talent. The challenge now is to tweak it for Saturday nights on Univision, but given the predominantly Mexican makeup of the U.S. Hispanic population, it’s probably not necessary. “TV entertainment is universal; there won’t be that many changes to ‘Sabadazo’ in the U.S.,” says “Sabadazo” producer Alexis Nunez.
“I’m going to miss everything,” says Don Francisco of his tenure at “Sabado Gigante.” “It’s been nearly 54 years of my entire life.”