How Sabado Gigante Changed TV as We Know It

PHOTO: Don Francisco

This Saturday night is no different from so many other Saturday nights, because live from Miami, it's Sábado Gigante, a show that has captivated US Latinos for a quarter of a century. Cavorting around the set are a parade of leggy models in tight leather pants bursting across from stage right into a dizzying array of flashing lights, a man spinning inside a gyroscopic wheel, a woman with elastic cheeks, a clown juggling, sword swallowers, a comedy skit with suggestive overtones, Jorge Villamizar lip-synching his latest hit, "Todo Lo Que Quieres Es Bailar," and a mini-game show where contestants risk losing their chance at a new car if they get the answer wrong.

Through it all, there's Don Francisco, aka Mario Kreutzberger Blumenfeld (See also: Meet The Man Behind Sabado Gigante), announcing the $3000 winner of the Yo Soy Único competition, made possible by State Farm, Starbucks, and Novartis. And he's smiling, smiling, smiling.

The obvious thing to say about Sabado Gigante, the eternally influential and powerful staple of Saturday night programming on Spanish-language television in the U.S., is that it exists in a time warp (See also: Sábado Gigante Through The Years), harking back to a time of innocence and family values. But when you sit and watch it, as I often do with my mom and dad when I visit their home in Puerto Rico, it's a very contemporary experience, one that seems to reach out from the flat screen and implant itself firmly in your lap, unless of course you're holding your laptop or tablet.

Perhaps Sabado Gigante seemed old-fashioned at one point, because mainstream television networks decided to raise the sophistication level of their product by seemingly putting up barriers between "content," "advertising," and small children running around the house. But the Internet revolution has once again blurred that line, and the typical media experience has caught back up to Don Francisco, that friendly, familiar voice coming into a family's living room and offering trusted advice about a product that might represent a necessity, or a life to be aspired to.

After all, haven't we all become accustomed to ads designed to get "conversions" out of us, or Twitter and Facebook feeds that are not necessarily there to distract us, but to add on to the information we're already consuming? So it seems that we've come full circle, and Sabado Gigante, often considered a remnant of outdated television formats that were long ago declared obsolete in El Norte, is not even close to going out of style.

At the dawn of the television era, which young Mario Kreutzberger studied in the late 1950s from his hotel room in midtown Manhattan, there were several formats that wrapped straightforward advertising right into the show you were watching. Whether it was the quiz show, the variety show, and the nascent sitcom, it wasn't unusual to see the stars themselves taking a moment from the proceedings to hawk things like Revlon cosmetics, a band new Mercury automobile, or Phillip Morris cigarettes.

It was this world of television that Don Francisco brought back home to Chile in the early '60s, when he began the career whose 50th anniversary is being celebrated this coming Saturday night. He still describes his pioneering show, which is still in production in Santiago, as inspired by the annual Jerry Lewis Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy telethon, another throwback to the early days of television.

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