Sabado Gigante at 50

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The exposure helped Estefan become a household name. Her modeling work on Sábado Gigante led to a morning radio show, a regular segment on Channel 23's local news broadcast, hosting gigs for beauty pageants, and other jobs. In 1998, she landed a cohosting spot on Univision's daytime celebrity gossip show, El Gordo y la Flaca, marking the end of her Sábado Gigante tenure. "It was inevitable to take the next step," she says. "I cried a lot."

Jackie Nespral also took that next step after three years on Sábado. Like Estefan, she was one of the show's original models. She had also made a name for herself when she was chosen as the Orange Bowl Queen in 1985 and 1986 while a student at the University of Miami.

Nespral had ambitions beyond modeling. After three years with Sábado Gigante, she transferred to Univision's news division. In 1990, she became co-anchor of the network's national news show. She then did a three-year stint on NBC's Today, followed by a lead anchor position back in Miami in 1994 with NBC 6, where she has been ever since. But before beginning her long career in news, Nes­pral was just a 20-year-old Cuban-American pageant queen who'd never been on the air. Like Estefan, she was an early participant in Don Francisco's TV boot camp.

"Don Francisco would make fun of my Spanish because I was born and raised in Miami and my first language was English," Nes­pral says. "Because of that critiquing, I took intensive Spanish courses because I knew it wasn't up to par to work news in Spanish."

Even after moving on to a new career, Nes­pral is amazed at the number of people who remember her from her earliest days on Sábado Gigante. "Still, to this day, I'll get stopped in Little Havana or Hialeah and people will say, 'Oh, it's Jackie from Sábado Gigante!' " Nespral says. "That is the power that show has."

At 10:15 on a muggy Wednesday night in late October, a limo pulls up to a red carpet leading to the doors of Univision's studios. Out steps Mario Kreutzberger, moving slowly and wearing a spotless white suit and gaudy purple shirt, to make his way to Sábado Gigante's 50th-anniversary taping. Fans outside are in a frenzy, chanting his name and singing "Happy Birthday."

A presenter asks Kreutzberger what the past 50 years have meant to him. He pauses and then gives one word: "Life."

As Sábado Gigante heads past its 50th year, the show's fate depends on two things: ratings and Kreutzberger's health.

In the ratings, the toughest figure is the 18-to-34 demographic, which sits at just 22 percent of the show's audience, down from a 20-year high of 31 percent in 2005. "My obligation now is to reinvent myself, do something new and different," Kreutzberger says. "I'm twice your age. How can I speak with you?"

There's little detail about strategy. The show's executive producer, Antonio Arias, speaks vaguely of the need to have "a production team constantly taking the pulse of the viewing audience." He also mentions closed captioning for non-Spanish speakers.

A recent University of Florida study, however, bodes ill for the show. The study notes that bilingual Hispanics under 35 are drawn more to English-language programming than Spanish content. Even worse, those younger viewers have little interest in variety shows from their grandparents' generation.

"Young, bilingual Hispanic audiences are more into sitcoms and reality shows, and that's a problem for Univision," says FIU's Alvarado.

The biggest question on everyone's mind, however, concerns Kreutzberger himself. He is a diabetic with two bad knees. "I'm not going to retire," he says. "They are going to retire me."

Even if that happens, he thinks the show would go on without him. "This format has been useful and modern for 50 years," he says. "Why can't it go on for 60 years? The Tonight Show has had six different hosts, but it's still on the air today."

Before the show reaches 60, however, it has to celebrate 50.

Back at the golden-anniversary gala, celebrities such as Thalia, Paulina Rubio, and Gabriel Soto walk the red carpet.

But the night is stormy and slow. When the taping begins at 8 p.m., select audience members fill three metal bleachers outside the studios. After repeated takes of less-than-newsy interviews — the most common question was a tie between "What are you wearing?" and "How much fun is it to be here?" — a torrential downpour begins. Audience members and celebrities alike crowd under a small overhang. After a short interlude, a second shower sends many people home. Maybe two or three dozen audience members out of an initial 100 stick it out. When Kreutzberger's limo finally arrives, the hardy remaining few cheer like mad.

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Jon Tayler
Contact: Jon Tayler