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INVISIBLE HITS : The shows that nobody cares about--except millions of viewers


They are the Rodney Dangerfields of television: They get no respect from critics, are rarely on magazine covers and are routinely shut out at Emmy time.

But they are not ignored by the people who count most-the viewers. They are the quiet hits of the airwaves-audience pleasers that place in the top of the weekly Nielsen ratings.

The invisible hits range from shows lucky enough to sit in a comfortable time slot, such as the No. 4-ranked "A Different World," to "Hunter," holding steady at No. 47 but No. 1 in its time slot against such ballyhooed shows as CBS' "WIOU" and ABC's "Cop Rock," recently canceled.

Producer Fred Silverman has several hidden hits on television-NBC's "Matlock," "In the Heat of the Night" (which holds the distinction of having delivered the fatal blow to "Moonlighting") and the "Perry Mason" movies. His CBS series "Jake and the Fatman" is a more moderate hidden hit.

Silverman has been around long enough to expect that such shows get little press.

"These are not trendy shows," he said. "When 'thirtysomething' went on, it was a trendy show. It was fun to write about. 'Twin Peaks' and 'China Beach,' these shows get hot for a very short period of time and then they go away.

"I promise you next year at this time, there won't be a word written about 'Twin Peaks,' if it is still around. You hardly see anything about 'China Beach' anymore. I figure it is a lot sexier to write about them than 'Matlock' and 'Jake and the Fatman,' which are like old shoes."

Silverman's series usually skew to older audiences. "I would be a liar if I said they didn't," he said. "But they don't do badly with the younger demographics. 'Matlock,' 'In the Heat of the Night' and 'Jake and the Fatman' are in the middle range of series among 18- to-49-year-old viewers."

Silverman maintains his series are successful because they appeal to older viewers: "As time goes by, I think that situation will become even more pronounced. It is just the fact of life. In terms of buying power, (older audiences) represent more buying power than the younger families. They have more money to spend, and I think it's just a matter of time before we start to see the advertisers buying older."

It does, however, anger Silverman that his productions are snubbed by Emmy voters. (Carroll O'Connor is a rare exception. He won an Emmy last year for "In the Heat of the Night.")

"I think there is terrific work done on these shows," Silverman said. "I think Andy Griffith deserves at least an Emmy nomination for 'Matlock.' I didn't go to the Emmy Awards this year. I didn't look at them on the air. It's a sham." Over the next few years, Silverman believes, the networks will return to more traditional programming such as "Matlock."

"With all this talk of demographics, any entertainment president of the four networks would kill to get a 35 share," Silverman said. "I don't care what the demographics are. I don't care what the show is, 'Cosby' or 'Roseanne,' in order to get those kind of numbers, you are going to have a broad-based audience of old and young."

NBC's detective series "Hunter," starring former Rams defensive end Fred Dryer as L.A. detective Rick Hunter, is another quiet hit with broad appeal. In its seventh season, "Hunter" has weathered both schedule and cast changes. "We are the most popular hour police show on TV," said Larry Kubik, co-executive producer. "We are seen in 88 countries. We are No. 1 in China, South America and Germany."

The reason for its success?

"I think Fred Dryer is perceived as the John Wayne of his generation," Kubik said. "I think that women love him and men kind of look up to him. I think the character of Rick Hunter is steeped in a '60s morality. I think he has old values that TV audiences are used to. He doesn't do things that are out of character. He is not going to have an affair with a married woman. The morality of his character is something audiences feel comfortable with."

Kubik believes "Hunter" is ignored because it was initially perceived as a typical action series in the vein of "The A-Team," because both were created by Stephen J. Cannell. "The show was that, but it evolved out of it," Kubik said. "I started changing a lot of what I did," said Dryer, who is also co-executive producer of the series. "Producer Roy Huggins came in the second year and asked me what I thought about the show. We started working together and, for the most part, it got its feet and legs with Roy. Then we kind of refined it.

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