Director preps syndicated fantasy series

Once upon a time, way back in the mid-1990s, there were elves, spaceships — even dragons if the budget was big enough. And a magical kingdom called syndicated television was ruled by fantasy fare like “Xena: Warrior Princess,” “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and sci-fi shows like “Andromeda.”

Less than a decade ago, though, crucial foreign markets for these shows vanished, and the last such skein to give first-run syndication a shot — NBC and MGM’s “She Spies” in 2002 — got eaten by the Nielsen troll.

But Sam Raimi thinks it’s time to roll the dice again, and the helmer-producer is betting on a new-school swords-and-sorcery skein: Disney-ABC Domestic’s “Legend of the Seeker.”

Based on Terry Goodkind’s bestselling “Sword of Truth” novels (the 11th and final volume came out last year), the show is set to premiere in November on stations in 95% of the country, including all the top 50 markets. First into the pool was the giant Tribune Broadcasting Co., which reps stations in 35% of the U.S. and includes big guns like flagship Chicago-based behemoth WGN.

Advertisers, too, have sought “Seeker” — Disney Domestic ad sales exec Howard Levy says Trib’s vote of confidence has impressed his clients — and producer Ned Nalle (who, like Raimi, worked on “Xena” and “Hercules”) says the combined nerdity of Raimites and Goodkindians is a force to be reckoned with.

“People wanted to hug Sam at Comic-Con — they remember him from ‘Evil Dead,’ ” recalls Nalle, who teamed with Raimi and Goodkind to host an event promoting the series in San Diego. “I think we had 1000 people in the room at our presentation, and a lot of them had read not just one book, but the entire set.”

Nalle says ABC Studios (which is producing the show) has given them network-sized production budgets for the 22 episodes. Accordingly, the show will be well-stocked with special effects and heavy on the action sequences. To supplement that cost, “Seeker” is cast with unknowns and literally follows in the footsteps of “Lord of the Rings”: Raimi is off shooting on the same New Zealand hills and vales that Peter Jackson used for Mordor and the Shire.

Shot in HD — a syndie premiere first — the show will follow four characters from the twisting plot paths of Goodkind’s novels, with Craig Horner and Bridget Regan in the lead roles as Richard Cypher and Kahlan.

“They’re going to get into adventures that are both literally from the books, and others that are invented by (head writer) Ken Biller and his staff, who are very well-steeped in this genre,” says Nalle. “None of us believe we should be doing anything but closed-ended stories, so you won’t have to see episode six to enjoy episode 13.”

Enthusiasm aside, all this money and effort adds up to significant risk: Nobody in syndication has even dipped a toe in the fantasy TV pool since Jackson and that Harry Potter kid started raising the bar for special effects. And stations have mostly stuck with the tried-and-true genres like cop dramas, sitcoms and gameshows. “There’s risk with everything, but nothing really has worked as well on those stations since ‘Xena’ stopped playing there,” Nalle says. “They tried some less- ambitious dramas, but we really saw an opening last summer, when Tribune bought ‘American Idol’ reruns (which drastically underperformed) for this same time period. We approached them, thinking we could do better with something we had done successfully before.”

Bill Carroll, VP of programming at rep firm Katz TV, thinks Nalle just might pull it off. “Our stations have been looking for things that are unique to them, and this show really falls into that category. This is a great weekend vehicle for Tribune in particular during a time when they’re trying to have as high a profile as they can.”

Carroll notes that shows “Hercules” and “Xena” went away in the first place because, right at the turn of the century, the bottom dropped out of the sizeable foreign market as international stations started to develop more sophisticated homegrown productions. Nine syndie hourlongs (including “Hercules”) were canceled during the 1999-2000 season alone.

“Legend of the Seeker,” he says, is taking the position that the market has corrected itself and a new scripted fantasy weekly is finally viable again, and it’s probably right.

But there’s another, more morbid reason that “Seeker” might end up a hit, and nobody wants much to talk about it: If struggling broadcaster CW eventually buys the farm, it would leave gaping holes all over its affiliates’ schedules — and something like “Seeker,” which targets the young, male audience, could be just what the healer wizard ordered.

Still, Nalle suggests that the show’s real strength is that he and his team are in “the crowd-pleasing business.”

“We’re trying to make the show commercial, and give people a bit of a thrill ride, as it were,” he says.

And, since Nalle, Raimi, and the rest are the first into this territory after the film fantasy boom, it won’t just be the audience who’re surprised by what happens next.

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