For a television program to earn — for the third time — the Guinness Award as “the longest-running TV show in any language” for 50 years on the air is more than a record. It’s prowess. Its name: Sábado Gigante.
It all began in August 1962 and was not at all easy. Mario Kreutzberger, the later legendary Don Francisco, spent a whole year trying to persuade the director of Chile’s Channel 13 to give him a chance.
Ever since, for half a century, Sábado Gigante has lived through the evolution of 20th-Century television: from black-and-white to color, from live to tape, from analog to digital, and has confronted and successfully resisted the onslaughts of the new technology that in the 21st Century has so fractioned and depersonalized communications.
So, what’s the magic of Don Francisco and Sábado Gigante?
I would say there are two. The first is having created a great program lasting several hours, with segments that rather resemble miniprograms gifted with an unprecedented level of variety and originality. The second is the host’s versatility.
Don Francisco, who sings, dances and jokes with no constraints other than his respect for his guests, can take us from laughter to tears before we realize it, and can make an audience of all ages “wag the tail” five minutes later, as if they were a symphony orchestra.
Mario Kreutzberger, known as Don Francisco, had already spent 25 years doing his program in Chile when he arrived in Miami in 1985 through his relationship with the late Rolando Barral, then a well-known television host.
Joaquín Blaya, then president of Univisión, and Alfredo Durán, a high executive of that company, bet on the program, even going against the interests of the network, which at the time was up for sale.
I was part of the group that aired Sábado Gigante in the United States, and we all sensed that we were dealing with something transcendental. When we saw the public stand in long lines outside the studio, we realized that we were experiencing a new phenomenon in Spanish-language television.
We learned to produce several genres in a single program, which forced the company to grow in terms of production resources. Shortly thereafter, we traveled to Chile to share both experiences. Sábado Gigante had taken off in the United States. The rest is history.
When simple acts were interesting, we saw Don Francisco doing his conversational segments with pianist Valentín Trujillo. Swapping songs, they traveled through time talking about the greats of international music. Or talking about his foreign movie, which was shown worldwide.
The program brought families together, righted injustices, gave away a lot of money in prizes and arranged it so that hundreds of visitors to the studio could win the latest car model, all this within the healthy framework of entertainment.
Sábado Gigante belongs to an era when it was not unusual for three generations to sit together to watch television, a pleasant routine that brought families closer together. That is why Omar Marchant, a remarkable and immensely creative Univisión executive, launched a slogan that perfectly described the Sábado Gigante phenomenon: “The best pretext to stay at home!”
That is why, when we talk about Univisión’s success, we have to refer to before and after Sábado Gigante.
Congratulations to Mario and his great production team on their 50 years on the air! The giant is him, not the Saturdays.
Eduardo Suárez is vice President of programming or CNN en Español.