How Sabado Gigante Changed TV as We Know It

PHOTO: Don FranciscoCourtesy of Univision
Don Francisco celebrates 50 years as host of Sabado Gigante.

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.

The success achieved by the Miami-based weekly extravaganza has pretty much defined the entry experience for millions of Latin American immigrants to the U.S. in the last 26 years. When Don Francisco was first tapped to start a network show for Univision in 1986, it was designed to accelerate the growth of Spanish-language television as a platform to reach a growing number of Hispanic consumers.

Sabado Gigante began with a concept that unified U.S. television strategies with the need to focus the consumer market for an emerging Latino population. "We came up with the idea that we are Hispanic," says Kreutzberger. "We are far away from home, but united by language. That was our tagline. Separado por la distancia, unidos por un idioma."

These sentiments were part of an idea that was not only about marketing, but actually creating a Hispanic identity where national-origin groups, despite their differences, were brought under a single umbrella, united by language. NYU Professor Arlene Dávila puts it this way in her book Latinos Inc.: "Not only did [Spanish-language network television] create a dependable and steady base for placing advertising by providing continuous programming for Spanish-speaking populations, but it also formed the basis for the conceptualization of Hispanics as a nationwide community, linked and imagined by the networks."

"Sabado Gigante continues to be the highest-rated program in the Western Hemisphere," says Federico Subervi, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Media & Markets at Texas State University and author of numerous studies on Latinos and media. "It combines farándula with the town square that maintains diversity and allows friends and neighbors to mingle."

My mother, Maria Morales, has her own reasons for remaining loyal to the show: "You get the opportunity to learn about the dances and music from all the different countries — bachata and merengue from the Dominican Republic, the norteño music from Mexico. They have all the musicians — recently they had Elvis Crespo and Kany García."

There is also a vicarious sense of participation, whether through the constant involvement of audience members to judge what are essentially karaoke contests and dancing throw-downs – a formula that has worked remarkably well on reality talent competition shows like America's Got Talent and American Idol.

Then there is the dramatization of the aspirational Latino consumer. "Everyone watches the part when they give away the car," adds my mother. "Everyone wonders what they would do with the car, everyone imagines whether they would just hold onto the modest amount of prize money rather than risk it all."

My mother's favorite part of the show, however, is not about the music or the prizes – it's about family. Los niños de la conversación, as that part of the show is called, is the convergence of the well-worn stereotype of Latinos as placing children at the center of all activity and the brave new world of social media. This segment, which features a roundtable of regularly appearing children, might have been destined to the corny dustbin, but is suddenly re-emergent in our world of photo- and video-posting excesses that we have grown to not only tolerate, but crave. Along with the endless array of kitten and dancing salsa dog videos, Sábado Gigante traffics heavily in the culture of cute, avoiding obsolescence.

In the end, as my mom says, "la chispa que enciende todo es Don Francisco." He is the spark that sets it all off. Perhaps the most interesting idea to emerge from his appearance at the Museum of the Moving Image last month at an event honoring him was his acute awareness of the history of visual media and how it continues to change.

"We started out in black and white, then we became color," said Don Francisco. "Then there was the remote control and then digital signal, and the Internet. But the content is not different. What's different is the platform. Nobody can avoid the need for content. But what it will be is the question. Spanish or English? Bilingual?"

Perhaps the answer was at the end of last week's show, when Don Francisco brought out the legendary Italian-American singer Tony Bennett to peform a song from his new album, Viva Duets. Don Francisco, as he does when English-speakers appear, acted as translator as he interviewed Bennet about the album, which features bilingual duets with singers like Christina Aguilera, Juan Luis Guerra, Marc Anthony, and Thalía.

Then he introduced Los Fabulosos Cadillacs' singer Vicentico to sing Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" as a duet. Bennett sang a verse in English, Vicentico followed in Spanish, and the loping beat remained the same. Suddenly a1950s country western hit, a slice of Americana, had become a bilingual Latin pop classic.

It's clear that with the explosive growth of the Latino community, we begin to live different lives, live in different languages or combinations thereof. But some things never change, and Don Francisco continues to rule the Spanish-language television world because he lives by one all-important rule about entertainment: "To be successful, you have to give the audience what it wants."

Univision will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Sabado Gigante with a four-hour special this Saturday, at 7 p.m. EST.