By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
Mario Kreutzberger has been a TV pioneer in both his native Chile and the United States, so it will surprise few that he is among those selected to receive an honorary trustee award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his leadership role in Spanish-language television.
Mr. Kreutzberger’s “Sábado Gigante” (Giant Saturday) for Univision, a three-hour weekly hybrid of variety, game show, celebrity interviews and traveling camera sequences, has been on the airwaves since 1962 and is distributed on every continent. It is available to 99 percent of Spanish-speaking people worldwide.
According to the “Guinness Book of World Records,” it is the longest-running television series in history with a single host: Mr. Kreutzberger, or Don Francisco, as he is known on the show.
“Is there anyone better than he in the Spanish- or English-language TV world?” asked Raul Mateu, who heads the Latin American division of the William Morris Agency. “I’d argue no. Plus, he’s a warm and lovely gentleman.”
“When we started the show, television itself in Chile had only just begun, and we were one of the first regular shows,” Mr. Kreutzberger said. “I came to New York in 1959 to study and had never seen TV before that. I used to sit in my modest hotel room on 32nd Street and Broadway and watch. I was so transfixed I didn’t want to leave the room.”
For 24 years Mr. Kreutzberger produced and hosted the show, which was originally called by the plural “S%E1;bados Gigantes,” strictly in Chile. However, in 1986 he decided to produce it from Miami as well.
“At the time there was no Spanish-language television produced in the U.S.,” he said. “The Spanish shows there were imported from Mexico and Puerto Rico. I said give me a studio and let’s try.”
Within three years, he said, the 8½-hour commute between Miami and Santiago de Chile became too much, so Mr. Kreutzberger decided to base only in Miami. As a result, the series heralded a shift through which the United States became one of the prime exporters of Spanish-language television. His show has featured unknowns but is also a “must venue” for established stars such as Marc Anthony, Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin and Jon Secada.
Mr. Kreutzberger is also known for his charitable endeavors. In 1978 he borrowed another American creation, the telethon, and began to do them in Chile. He has raised almost $200 million through the years for a number of causes.
Mr. Kreutzberger has never forgotten his family’s roots. He is the son of Holocaust survivors, German Jews who escaped Europe in 1940. In May he traveled to Israel and Eastern and Central Europe to produce and narrate a documentary about that period entitled “March of the Living.”
“I am making it in loving memory of my parents,” he said. “It is a charitable work we will show to Hebrew schools and organizations in Chile and South America and maybe elsewhere, maybe on TV.
“It is the communicator’s responsibility,” he added, “to bring positive messages to the audience.”
(aka Don Francisco)
Title: Host of “Sábado Gigante,” Univision
How long in current position: Since 1962
Year of birth: 1940
Place of birth: Talca, Chile
Who knew? On April Fools’ Day 2003, a rumor spread through the New York metropolitan area that Mr. Kreutzberger had died. In some northern New Jersey cities, local councils began scheduling meetings to decide on appropriate ways to mourn.