On a recent episode of Univision’s Sábado Gigante, I watched Don Francisco, the show’s 70-year-old creator and host, introduce three musical acts; MC a dance contest and a sing-off; mix it up with a comedienne; conduct a polygraph test on an aging lothario; chat with a young woman who had just been eliminated from a reality show; interview one of the rescued Chilean miners, who has written a book about his experience; navigate the approximately 25 coaches and judges involved in a talent-show segment; converse with a group of children; serve as the question-master in a parent-child quiz; and expertly stretch out the show’s climax—a car giveaway contest—so the suspense persisted until the final credits rolled. He also served as a pitchman, extolling the merits of insurance companies, snack foods, and shampoo.
Sábado Gigante is an unholy mashup of The X Factor, Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, Saturday Night Live, The Price Is Right, Kids Say the Darndest Things, The Gong Show, Lawrence Welk, Maury Povich, Charlie Rose, and whatever program involves little people in wrestler costumes gamboling with bikini-clad women. It’s splendidly surreal and fabulously entertaining—last Saturday, NPR’s Glen Weldon tweeted that Sábado Gigante is “apparently designed by a committee of Pedro Almodovar, Merv Griffin & David Lynch.” It’s also a hit—last week’s show attracted 2.4 million viewers and was the night’s eighth-ranked show among U.S. viewers between the ages of 18 and 49.
Sábado Gigante’s big ratings aren’t an outlier—lots of shows on Univision are monster hits. The network consistently attracts more viewers than the CW (home of buzzy programs such as Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries), and for the last four seasons it has been the No. 1 network on Friday nights for all viewers between 18 and 34, the demographic prized by advertisers. For the week ending Sept. 4, Univision outperformed every English-language network among adults 18-49 and dominated in all key categories, including total viewers, on the night of Sept. 7.
How does a minority-language network achieve such astonishing results? It has found a way to package what Anglos think of as "daytime TV" into highly successful nighttime entertainment.
One of Univision’s secrets is consistency. No one needs to consult a schedule to know what’s on: Every weeknight from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern, the network runs the same three telenovelas back-to-back-to-back. These soaps last between 100 and 120 episodes, meaning that everyone who tunes in for a new show knows they’ll be able to follow the arc from beginning to end—an assurance English-speaking viewers surely envy. (Are you wondering what happened to the killer bunny on The Playboy Club? That curiosity will never be sated.)
Cesar Conde, the president of Univision Networks, told me that novelas are close to DVR-proof—fans watch the shows live, knowing it will be impossible to find time to catch up on a week’s worth of La Fuerza del Destino. Although the shrinking number of English-language daytime soaps are hemorrhaging viewers, there are no signs of slippage in Spanish. “The novela genre is the apex of an actor’s career,” Conde said. “The George Clooneys and Julia Robertses of our community are on the air Monday to Friday.”
The Spanish-language networks aren’t unique in this regard. In Britain, primetime soaps like Coronation Street (which airs at least five new half-hour episodes each week) and EastEnders (which airs four) dominate the ratings and the national conversation. (In 2005, Sir Ian McKellen fulfilled a lifelong ambition to appear on Coronation Street.) But prime-time novelas haven’t taken hold on English-language American television. In 2006, Fox briefly and unsuccessfully experimented with the block format, but I don’t see any other English-language broadcaster following suit. For the near future at least, Univision has the prime-time soap racket to itself.