Television's Mr. ‘Noche de Sabado'

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The first time Mario Kreutzberger saw a television set
was in 1959. He was 19 and had left his native
Chile to pursue a
career as a tailor in
New York. Instead,
his encounter with what he thought was a "radio with a screen" was to change
his life forever. Today, at age 68, Kreutzberger (better known as "Don
Francisco") is the host of Sábado Gigante,
the ratings-buster weekly show recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records
as the longest-running TV show in the
Americas (47 years).
As Kreutzberger prepares to deliver a keynote speech at this year's Hispanic TV
Summit in New York City, he spoke to Hispanic
Television Update
contributor Laura Martínez about his love at first sight
with television and his dream of creating a show targeting senior citizens. An
edited transcript follows.

MCN: Shall we call you Don Mario or Don
Francisco?

Don Francisco: I react equally to both names. The name Don Francisco has been with me for
47 years out of my 68 years of age. It was a name I adopted as a teenager, when
I studied theatre and performed at a Jewish club [in Chile] doing an impression of a Jewish guy who didn't speak
Spanish: his name was Don Francisco. Most people call me Don Francisco, and in
fact many Americans still think that my first name is "Don" and my last name
"Francisco."

Don Francisco

MCN: Sábado Gigante has been
recognized by the Guiness Book of World Records as the longest-running variety
show in the
Americas. Is there
any other record you'd like to break?

DF: I want to
break the 50-year record as host of a television show, even though nobody else
has even done 40 years. Johnny Carson's show lasted 30 years; Ed Sullivan
didn't even make it to 30. I've already been on the air 17 years longer than Carson ... but breaking the 50-year barrier would be just
fantastic!

MCN: The mainstream media has called you
the Hispanic Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan, David Letterman ... sometimes even Oprah
Winfrey. Do you think such comparisons are fair?

DF: I like to
say my show is like a soup ... a soup that has one basic ingredient that we mix
every week with new ingredients, but it is always a Gigante-flavored soup. I'd say my show is part Johnny Carson, part
Letterman, part Jack Paar, and even some Larry King.

MCN: What was the hardest part to move your
show from your native
Chile to the U.S.?

DF: When I
arrived in the U.S. [1986] I realized I had to adapt a program that I had been
doing for only one country to do a show to target a minority. As soon as we
launched here, we coined a phrase that turned out to be key: "Separated by
distance; united by one language." It was language that got us together.

We were challenged to find
topics that would be appealing to everyone, and avoid doing something just for
Chileans, or just for Cubans. ... Still, you have to acknowledge that out of
every 100 Hispanic television viewers in the U.S., 78 are of Mexican origin. So my show has a strong
Mexican influence.

MCN: Your father wanted you to be in the
garment industry and sent you to
New York to apprentice
the trade. Instead, you devoted your life to television. How did that happen?

DF: My father
wanted me to be a professional and he sent me to study here [in New York]. The problem was that as soon as I entered my hotel
room in Manhattan, I saw this huge radio, similar to the ones we had at home in
Chile, but this one had a glass ... a screen, and when I turned it on, I realized
it was a radio that you could hear ... and see! That's when I thought, "My father
is wrong." He sent me to study something old-fashioned, but this is the future.
This "thing" will become the most important thing. It will soon arrive in my
country. ... It was love at first sight.

And I was right. In 1961, I
began to see those TV sets arriving in Chile, just in time for the 1962 World Cup.

MCN: Do you still think TV is the thing of
the future?

DF: Of course,
the platforms will change, merge, evolve, but what's never going to go away is
the need to communicate.

MCN: Speaking of new platforms, are you on
Twitter and Facebook yet?

DF: I have a
Web page on Univision.com and I use Skype to communicate with my TV audience.
But I have to stay close to my audience, and I think Facebook and Twitter are
still way too advanced for our market.

MCN: Besides breaking the 50-year-old record
on the air, is there anything you want to achieve?

DF: I have a
dream to do something different on television. Everything that is being done
these days targets the 18-49 demographic, but people don't realize the world is
getting older. I want to do a show with content and information targeting
senior citizens. This is something I might even do with Univision, why not?
Digital television has made more channels available. We'll see. It's an idea
and it's a challenge.

MCN: Is it true that you don't ever want to
retire?

DF: I don't think one ever retires from one
activity. It is the circumstances that retire you. In my case, I will be "retired"
by the ratings, by my physical or intellectual capacities. There will be
reasons that will make me retire eventually. But why do it right now? I'm in great
shape and this is something I love to do. I know one day I will realize that I
cannot do it anymore and then, yes, I will retire.

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