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While Strips Wane, Weeklies Wax

While the number of firstrun strips pitched at NATPE this year hit a new low, weekly shows had, in comparison, an exceptionally strong showing with some 30-odd entries. And more than just being there, they garnered a majority of the attention from prospective buyers.

One reason for the heightened interest in weekend fare was apparent before the confab even began: Many station general managers already had decided which strips to acquire and which to renew before the trek to New Orleans. Also, while new strips seemed to offer safety over innovation – one rep dubbed them “teflon tv” – the diversity of the weekend offerings drew favorable comment.

Ranging from a jungle adventure to a radio-station sitcom, the shows that have broken away from the pack are: “Grudge Match,” “Baywatch,” “Street Justice,” “Tarzan,” “Lightning Force” and “WKRP In Cincinnati.”

Several reps have pointed out that these and other weekly offerings are a safe option for the smaller companies that were burned with strip launches last year, or decided the economy was too uncertain to launch a strip.

Says Jim Curtin, programming veep at H.R.P. rep firm: “Doing a once-a-week show is a way for some companies to stay active in the business without taking too many risks. One shouldn’t forget that a few hits, like ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Ninja Turtles,’ started life as once-a-week offerings.”

Other reps agree, but caution that weekly shows are “easy to launch but hard to turn into breakout hits.” And while a fair number of those offered at NATPE may wrap up clearances, it remains to be seen which make it to air and prosper.

In general, it is thought that several weekly shows currently on the air will fall by the wayside over the next few months. “Dracula” is sucking a 1.7 rating, “The Byron Allen Show” a 1.5 and “Neon Rider” a .9, to name only three lackluster contenders.

“Everything else being equal, a show should be pulling an average 5 national Nielsen number in order to be a viable barter show in syndication,” says Pat Kenny, head of syndication for Stephen J. Cannell Prods.

Their demise will make room for a number of newcomers. Several syndicators say they expected “about a third” of the current contenders to make it to air.

* “Grudge Match”: Execs at distributor Genesis Entertainment describe the show as a cross between “American Gladiators” and “People’s Court.” One rep describes it as “the show you feel guilty about having enjoyed watching.” So far, the hour show has cleared 69 stations, or up to 60% of the country, including eight out of the top 10 markets.

* “Baywatch”: Distributor LBS is financing the show together with Fremantle-Talbot, which is putting up substantial guarantees against international sales. The original network episodes of “Baywatch” have played exceptionally well to European audiences, per Fremantle-Talbot head Paul Talbot.

The hour show – centering around lifeguards in southern California – has been bought in several major markets, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. LBS’ Jon Nottingham declined to specify additional clearances.

* “Street Justice”: The latest contender from Stephen J. Cannell Prods. has so far chalked up 51 station clearances, or approximately 64% of the country. Stations include three indies in the top three markets: WPIX-TV New York, KTLA-TV Los Angeles and WGN-TV Chicago, according to Kenney.

The hour show teams a former martial arts expert with an undercover agent in Anytown, U.S.A. Kenny points out that action hours can be a powerful counterprogramming tool, noting that Cannell’s “Hunter,” for example, is beating all the major sitcoms in L.A. in its time period, and is second in New York only to “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

* “Tarzan”: Distributed by Worldvision, the half-hour program features an ecologically minded Tarzan and a modern and independent Jane. Only Cheeta has so far been cast. Worldvision is expecting substantial international sales to help finance the project.

So far domestic clearances represent 60% of the country, and include WWOR-TV New York, WPWR-TV Chicago and WPHL-TV Philadelphia. No deal as yet in Los Angeles. Some 70% of the deals are for double runs.

* “Lightning Force”: Both Viacom’s half-hour action predecessors, “Super Boy” and “Super Force,” have done well in recent Nielsen weekly pocketpieces: “Super Force” tied as the 12th most-watched syndicated firstrun show (with a 5.4 rating) and “Super Boy” was the 23rd, with a 4.5. So far, 35 stations have cleared the new show.

Observers say the pyro-technic antics of the hit-squad team is timely given the high-tech operations we’re seeing in the Persian Gulf.

* “WKRP In Cincinnati”: New half-hour firstrun episodes of the former CBS sitcom hit has already been cleared in 65% of the country, mainly on affiliates, including: KCAL-TV Los Angeles; WBZ-TV Boston; KPIX-TV San Francisco; and KRPC-TV Miami. There are no deals yet in New York or Chicago.

Some buyers say their interest was fueled by the fact that talent connected to the original show have been contracted by MTM, including writer/producer Hugh Wilson.

Rep sources wonder about MTM’s continued commitment to the project – which is costing the company approximately $500,000 to $600,000 an episode – if MTM is sold.

In addition to these shows, many observers believe several new ones designed for youngsters are likely to find a weekend niche.

Part of stations’ enthusiasm is being fueled by the FCC kidvid bill ruling that stations air more shows with educational or social values for young people.

They include Goodman Entertainment’s “Wide World Of Kids,” Muller Media’s “Scratch,” and Group W’s “Way Cool.”

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