THE GONE SHOW

Univi­sion is pulling the plug on the mad­cap ‘Sábado Gi­gante,’ a Span­ish-lan­guage TV sta­ple for 53 years

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Yvonne Vil­lar­real and Meg James

Satur­days are about to be a lot less gi­ant.

“Sábado Gi­gante,” the Span­ish­language TV sta­ple that brought mil­lions of Latino fam­i­lies to­gether with its mad­cap con­tests and cheesy sketch com­edy bits, will end its record 53-year run Sept. 19, Univi­sion an­nounced Fri­day.

For many Latino im­mi­grants and their chil­dren, the pro­gram has been the equiv­a­lent of com­fort food, re­mind­ing them of the high­en­ergy en­ter­tain­ment of their home­land and serv­ing as a uni­fier for the Latino di­as­pora.

“How will I know it’s Satur­day?” Celia Bar­ron, 68, an El Sereno res­i­dent, asked in Span­ish. “Qué lás­tima (What a shame).”

Led by car­ni­val barker host Mario Kreutzberger — who used the stage name Don Fran­cisco — the Miami-based “Gi­ant Satur­day” looked as if “The Gong Show,” “Let’s Make a Deal” and “Satur­day Night Live” were put in a kitschy blen­der and served up a jumbo, three-hour weekly pro­gram.

Though the show is beloved by gen­er­a­tions of Lati­nos, how­ever, rat­ings have dropped sharply in re­cent years among the young adults prized by ad­ver­tis­ers. And be­cause Kreutzberger owned the rights to the show, Univi­sion would have had to cut a deal with him to keep “Sábado Gi­gante” on the air.

The show is broad­cast in more

than 40 coun­tries and boasts tens of mil­lions of weekly view­ers, in­clud­ing about 2 mil­lion in the United States, most of them in Miami, New York and Los An­ge­les — mak­ing it one of the high­es­trated Span­ish-lan­guage TV shows. By com­par­i­son, NBC’s “Satur­day Night Live” typ­i­cally draws 6.2 mil­lion view­ers each week.

“If any show was about cre­at­ing the imag­i­nary com­mu­nity of a united Latino com­mu­nity, it was that show,” said Brid­get Ke­vane, the co­or­di­na­tor of the Latin Amer­i­can and Latino Stud­ies Pro­gram at Mon­tana State Uni­ver­sity. “It con­nected Cubans with Puerto Ri­cans with Mex­i­cans — un­doc­u­mented with doc­u­mented. It was a show grand­par­ents watched with their chil­dren and their grand­chil­dren.”

But just as English-lan­guage broad­cast­ers have strug­gled to main­tain a mass au­di­ence with tent­pole shows in the face of in­creas­ing me­dia frag­men­ta­tion, so have Span­ish-lan­guage broad­cast­ers.

In the 18-to-34 age group, view­er­ship plunged by 43% for the one-year pe­riod ended March 31, com­pared with the same pe­riod that ended in March 2011, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen.

Of its 2 mil­lion regular view­ers, only 307,000 were young adults.

Mario Gu­tier­rez, 39, of Boyle Heights said the Satur­day TV fi­esta had be­come some­thing like the em­bar­rass­ing un­cle at the fam­ily gath­er­ing.

“I can see why it’s go­ing: It is old school,” Gu­tier­rez said. “I don’t think it re­ally catches the eye of the ju­ve­niles to­day. It’s a bum­mer for our el­ders, though.”

Estrella Lopez, 25, used to like the show as a kid but said that over time, it “lost its touch.”

Kreutzberger, 74, de­clined an in­ter­view re­quest, say­ing through a spokesper­son that he wanted to make his first com­ments to his view­ers on Satur­day night’s pro­gram.

“For so many in the Span­ish-speak­ing com­mu­nity, Don Fran­cisco’s weekly three-hour show de­fines Satur­day evening en­ter­tain­ment, and I want to thank him and the in­cred­i­ble team for their out­stand­ing work,” Al­berto Ci­u­rana, pres­i­dent of Pro­gram­ming and Con­tent for Univi­sion Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Inc., said in a state­ment:

Re­tir­ing the aging show be­came a del­i­cate task for Univi­sion. Ex­ec­u­tives wanted to plan a grace­ful exit for “Sábado Gi­gante” be­cause the show has been such an im­por­tant part of the net­work’s his­tory — as well as Span­ish-lan­guage tele­vi­sion in the U.S.

Be­hind the scenes, Univi­sion ex­ec­u­tives have long dis­cussed how they should re­fresh the show — per­haps by bring­ing in a younger host. Pro­gram­mers rec­og­nized that re­plac­ing Kreutzberger would not be easy.

Even in his 70s, Kreutzberger was a tire­less work­horse. He would typ­i­cally bring his lunch to Univi­sion’s stu­dios in west Miami and of­ten emailed his as­sis­tants in the wee hours with notes on ideas for new con­tests or bits for the show. Kreutzberger also wanted his daugh­ter, Vivi Kreutzberger, to take over once he re­tired to carry on the fam­ily busi­ness, ac­cord­ing to a knowl­edge­able per­son who was not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the topic.

“‘Sábado Gi­gante’ has had an amaz­ing run,” said Adam Ja­cob­son, a Span­ish­language me­dia con­sul­tant and con­tribut­ing edi­tor for Mul­ti­chan­nel News. “The ques­tion now is what does this mean for Univi­sion, and for Span­ish-lan­guage tele­vi­sion, on Satur­day nights?”

The net­work had been groom­ing a Venezue­lan comic, Raul Gon­za­lez, but last year Gon­za­lez de­fected to ri­val net­work Tele­mu­ndo. Now that net­work is de­vel­op­ing its own Satur­day night va­ri­ety show that could be an­nounced as early as next month.

Soon af­ter the show’s 50th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion in late 2012, Univi­sion ex­ec­u­tives stepped up plan­ning for its re­tire­ment. Kreutzberger was asked when he wanted to end his long run, and he de­cided that 2015 would be a good time, ac­cord­ing to an­other per­son familiar with the sit­u­a­tion.

He wanted to go out when the show was still on top of the rat­ings.

“Why stop it at 53? Why not wait till it reaches 55?” asked Ke­vane, the Mon­tana pro­fes­sor. “It’s go­ing to be a huge hole to fill. Huge.”

The Septem­ber end date also co­in­cides with a planned public of­fer­ing for stock in Univi­sion Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the na­tion’s largest Span­ish-lan­guage broad­caster. The show, although prof­itable for Univi­sion, is a costly en­deavor be­cause of its large pro­duc­tion staff in Miami. End­ing the show will al­low Univi­sion to trim pro­gram­ming costs while the com­pany re­cruits new in­vestors.

Ad­ver­tis­ers will be sad to see it go too.

“When peo­ple think of Univi­sion, they also think of ‘Sábado Gi­gante,’ ” said Lia Silk­worth, man­ag­ing direc­tor of Ta­pes­try, part of ad­ver­tis­ing firm SMG Mul­ti­cul­tural. “The show pro­vided a fam­ily-friendly au­di­ence and co-view­ing among dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions: chil­dren, par­ents and grand­par­ents. We are very sur­prised to see it go.”

But the show’s em­i­nence was hardly con­fined to Latino house­holds. Its in­cred­i­ble longevity and flashy rep­u­ta­tion made it known far and wide; Stephen Col­bert, dur­ing his time on Com­edy Cen­tral, reg­u­larly par­o­died the Miami-based pro­gram un­der the guise of “Col­berto Re­porto Gi­gante.”

Though the pro­gram was a regular stop for Latino celebri­ties pro­mot­ing their projects, English-speak­ing celebri­ties and po­lit­i­cal fig­ures — from Tony Bennett to Barack Obama — also saw value in the zany stage as a way to reach out to the in­flu­en­tial, fast-grow­ing mi­nor­ity.

Lati­nos in the U.S. have more than $1 tril­lion in pur­chas­ing power and rep­re­sent more than half of U.S. pop­u­la­tion growth be­tween 2000 and 2010, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen.

As a youth, Kreutzberger be­came en­thralled by Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion and the likes of Jack Paar, Art Lin­klet­ter and Ed Sul­li­van dur­ing a brief pe­riod in the U.S.

He went on to launch his own show in his na­tive Chile in 1962, a loud and flam­boy­ant pro­gram on Sun­days called “Show Do­mini­cal,” which was re­named “Sábado Gi­gante” a year later. It soon gained trac­tion and moved to Satur­day nights with a name change. It even­tu­ally landed at Univi­sion in 1986.

Kreutzberger, in the end, has man­aged to out­pace his Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts by decades. He was on the air 30 years longer than Sul­li­van and 17 years longer than Lawrence Welk. But Kreutzberger and “Sábado Gi­gante” haven’t al­ways been met with abrazos.

The show has come un­der fire for the im­age it casts of the Latino cul­ture. Some have taken is­sue with its por­trayal of women and the way in which its silly bits ap­peal to the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor.

Isela Valdez, 40, of La Puente used to watch the show for the spe­cial episodes where Don Fran­cisco would travel the globe and re­port back on dif­fer­ent cul­tures. But the show’s con­tests that played up bod­ies and racy out­fits had Valdez chang­ing the chan­nel.

“That machismo is out­dated,” she said. “I don’t want to watch some­thing where they just see women as sex ob­jects.”

Chuy To­var, 45, of La Puente said he didn’t watch the show as much as his par­ents.

“I think I feel more sad for my par­ents be­cause my mom watches it re­li­giously,” To­var said about his 67-yearold mother. “She liked the en­ter­tain­ment, of course, she liked his sense of hu­mor.... We’re los­ing a huge fig­ure as far as that’s con­cerned.”

Michael Robin­son Chavez Los An­ge­les Times

THIS EPISODE of “Sábado Gi­gante,” taped in June, fea­tured a soc­cer theme in honor of the Gold Cup game be­tween Mex­ico and the United States. The show’s record-set­ting run will end Sept. 19.

Ro­drigo Varela Getty Images

THE PRO­GRAM is led by car­ni­val barker host Mario Kreutzberger, 74, who uses the stage name Don Fran­cisco.

Ro­drigo Varela Getty Images

HOST DON FRAN­CISCO at­tends “Sábado Gi­gante’s” 50th-an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion at Univi­sion’s head­quar­ters in Miami on Oct. 27, 2012.

‘Sábado Gi­gante’ slips in key de­mo­graph­ics

The show turns out a large au­di­ence but has lost younger view­ers.

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