SANTIAGO, Chile - For sheer longevity and number of viewers, nothing on American television compares to the variety show Sabado Gigante, or Giant Saturday. Week after week for 40 years, this three-hour program has been a Saturday night fixture, and it's now seen by up to 100 million Spanish-speakers in 20 countries, including the United States.
Mario Kreutzberger, 61, has been the host of Sabado Gigante since Day 1, his natural reticence hidden behind his goofy stage persona, Don Francisco. Perhaps the most popular and best-known television personality in Latin America, Don Francisco is a mix of Ed Sullivan, Regis Philbin, Art Linkletter, Bob Barker, Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donahue - with a dash of Oprah Winfrey's civic-mindedness.
"I can tell a joke and sing and dance a little, but not all that well," Kreutzberger said somewhat apologetically during an interview at an apartment he keeps at the foot of the Andes Mountains. "No, the reason I think our program has lasted 40 years is because it is what we Chileans call a cazuela," or stew. "It has a little bit of everything, because life has a bit of everything."
To mark his feat of endurance - Sabado Gigante has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's longest-running program with the same host - Kreutzberger has published an autobiography, Don Francisco: Life, Camera, Action! (in Spanish and English versions), which tells the story of how this child of German-Jewish refugees grew up to be Latin America's biggest star.
"Every star on the Hispanic map has been on his show at one time or another, and many of them launched their careers there," said Angelo Figueroa, editor of People en Espanol.
Sabado Gigante, which is taped these days in Miami, the capital of Latin American show business, has stuck to its original potpourri approach. Musical numbers, games, raffles, quizzes, interviews, news and comedy skits all whiz by, ushered along by buxom models and tied together only by the reassuring presence of Don Francisco.
"If you don't like what you see, all you have to do is wait four minutes, and it changes," said Joaquin Blaya, president of the Radio Unica radio network and a former president of Univision, the Spanish-language network that since April 1986 has broadcast Kreutzberger's program in the United States.
Kreutzberger's show began in Chile in August 1962, the same year that television arrived in the country. Originally seven hours long, Sabado Gigante quickly became the first must-see program for Chileans.
He may have taken his biggest professional risk in 1986, by moving his show to Miami from Santiago and reconfiguring it for the North American market. He toned down his Chilean accent and the specific Chilean content of the show.
He thought Sabado Gigante could bridge the gap between the North American and Latin American cultures, teaching newcomers to the United States about the values of their adopted culture, while also offering a familiar anchor.
Persuading American corporate sponsors to advertise on Sabado Gigante was not easy. Everywhere he turned, he encountered advertisers who saw no need for commercials in Spanish or who were blatantly prejudiced against Hispanics.
Today, companies such as American Airlines, Domino's Pizza, Allstate Insurance and H&R Block advertise on the show, and there is a waiting list of other companies that want to be sponsors.
"Relatively speaking, Sabado Gigante is probably the most commercially successful and profitable program in television network history in the United States, in English or in Spanish," said Blaya, comparing the show's cost to its revenues.
Though Sabado Gigante remains unknown to most English-speaking Americans, the show is so effective that during the 2000 presidential campaign, both George W. Bush and Al Gore agreed to be interviewed by Don Francisco. The question these days is how much longer the program's popularity - and Kreutzberger - can continue.
To young Latinos, raised on video games and just as comfortable in English as in Spanish, Sabado Gigante has become a symbol of everything that is corny and campy about Latin American pop culture.
Kreutzberger says that continued Hispanic immigration to the United States should give him a U.S. audience for years to come, but he knows that his appeal may erode. "The truth is that in the business you don't retire," Kreutzberger said. "They retire you."