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TELEVISION : He's the Giant : Don Francisco dominates 'Sabado Gigante,' a 3 1/2-hour extravaganza seen by 6 million in the U.S. and millions more in Latin America

August 25, 1991|IVAN SCOTT | Ivan Scott is a free - lance writer and broadcast journalist based in Washington

There are a lot of commercials. The show is sold out, with a long waiting list of hopeful sponsors. Fourteen of the top 15 U.S. sponsors advertise on "Sabado Gigante," including Colgate-Palmolive, Coca-Cola, American Airlines, General Foods and Procter & Gamble. Unlike most English-language television, "Sabado Gigante" is sold in 5- to 10-minute segments instead of 30- or 60-second spots. Also, the commercials on "Sabado Gigante" are a combination of live-sell and videotape, with the studio audience helping to peddle the products. Each sponsor has an identifying jingle, which is taught to the studio audience before that segment of the show is taped. Then, on cue, the audience comes on camera, weaving back and forth to the music and singing the words.

"Most Anglo television today is dull and boring," says executive producer Antoni (Cuco) Arias. "That's not the case with 'Sabado Gigante.' "

Basking in the unqualified success of "Sabado Gigante," Joaquin Blaya is a happy man. He is also from Chile, and he's the man who gave Don Francisco his start in the United States.

"They thought I was crazy," he says, referring to Hallmark Cards Inc., the owner of Univision. "They couldn't believe I wanted to put on a show as expensive as 'Sabado Gigante,' and with a talent then unknown outside of Chile. Maybe I was, but I was younger and more foolish then and I didn't know any better."

"Sabado Gigante" began as a local show on Miami's WLTV in the spring of 1986, and it went network in January, 1987. Blaya won't tell how much "Sabado Gigante" brings in, or how much Univision charges for each commercial on the show. All he'll do is smile and say, "Univision is now very solid financially."

(With projected gross sales of $234 million this year, maybe so, but last year Univision almost filed for bankruptcy. Hallmark bought up the junk bonds that were forcing Univision toward Chapter 11 and saved the network. Blaya says that with that burden removed, Univision will make money now.)

Univision is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, although Blaya believes that figure is misleading. Until 1987, Univision was SIN, the Spanish Information Network, which broadcast novelas and other programs exclusively produced in Mexico and Latin America.

"We got tired of seeing Latin kitchens and bathrooms," he explains. "We wanted kitchens and bathrooms that looked American." Many shows produced in Latin America are out of touch with the American way of life, he argues. "We must produce American shows in Spanish if we are to successfully attract second- and third-generation Hispanics." Univision now produces 41% of its programs at its state-of-the-art production facility in Miami.

The principal competition is Telemundo, a rival Miami-based network that also produces much of its own programming. Telemundo owns seven television stations (including KVEA Channel 52 in Los Angeles) to Univision's nine; it has 32 affiliates to Univision's 35, and it is carried by about 300 cable systems in this country, compared to 546 that carry Univision.

A third Spanish-language program service is Galavision, headquartered in Century City. Seen in Los Angeles on KWHY Channel 22, it gets all of its programming from the Televisa network in Mexico and is aimed primarily at Mexican-Americans in the West.

Blaya stresses that Univision is not a Spanish TV network, but an American TV network broadcasting in Spanish. He insists that the distinction is paramount to the mission of Univision. "We are not in competition with the other networks and stations broadcasting in Spanish," Blaya contends. "We are in competition with all TV networks and stations in the U.S."

The key problems he wrestles with constantly are how to win over, or win back, the Latinos who watch mostly English-language television, and how to appeal to the diverse Spanish-speaking audience--people from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Central and South America. "Don Francisco and 'Sabado Gigante' do it," Blaya says. "I'm convinced you do it by offering quality programs."

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