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Syndication's Where the Action-Adventure Is : Television: 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,' 'The Untouchables,' 'Kung Fu: The Legend Continues' and 'Time Trax' are off to an auspicious start.

March 19, 1993|DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you've been watching the wild bunch of new action-adventure TV series in syndication with your fingers crossed, hoping the sudden return of a genre that once dominated television will stick to the wall, you may be in luck.

Four high-profile series that premiered in January are off to an auspicious start, judging from numbers released this week for the February ratings sweeps, one of four months each year when the audience for each TV station in the country is measured to determine advertising rates.

"Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" established a strong outpost for the month with an average of 11.5 million households, according to the A.C. Nielsen Co. That was just a tick behind the hit "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and good enough to finish No. 4 out of 137 programs in syndication.

"The Untouchables," meanwhile, averaged 6.2 million households, followed by "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues" with 5.9 million and "Time Trax" with 5.6 million.

Based on feedback from the studios that produce them, all four series are likely to return for a second season if those numbers hold up. Two other like-minded series that premiered in November, "Highlander" and "Renegade," have already been renewed for next season, along with a third season of "Baywatch."

Together, these series have kick-started a dying franchise. At a time when lawmakers and special-interest groups have intensified their efforts to reduce violence on television, a resurgence of rock 'em, sock 'em programs are rolling into production.

"Viper," starring "American Ninja" film hero Michael Dudikoff, will strike in syndication in the fall, along with "Acapulco H.E.A.T.," starring Catherine Oxenberger as a member of an international crime-fighting squad operating out of a Mexican Riviera hotel. The networks will try to cut in on the action when Steven Spielberg's "Sea Quest" surfaces on NBC next season. Chuck Norris is doing a CBS series called "Walker, Texas Ranger," and CBS has its own "Viper" series planned. NBC has even put "Knight Rider, 2010" in development.

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The genre has also extended into TV movies. MCA TV this month announced plans to spend $75 million to produce a slate of 24 action-adventure TV movies for syndication next year, borrowing heavily from Universal Pictures' stable of theatrical talent and product. The filmmakers--each of whom will make a series of four movies--include "An American Werewolf in London" director John Landis, "Army of Darkness" director Sam Raimi, "Smokey and the Bandit" director Hal Needham and "Star Trek" star William Shatner, who will adapt his "Tekwar" novels for the screen.

"When something in the television industry works, a bandwagon effect takes place, and other players come in and try to carve out a piece of the pie for themselves," said Bruce Rosenblum, senior vice president of media research for Warner Bros., which produces "Kung Fu" and "Time Trax." "There's always the potential that we could hit the saturation point. I'm not sure if that saturation point for this particular genre will come quickly or take longer. These shows are not easy or cheap to produce."

What broke down the door for action was the need for independent TV stations to compete in their local markets with network affiliates. Action eventually became too expensive to produce on the networks, although the demand never really diminished, especially among young men, the demographic group that advertisers have the hardest time reaching.

With "Star Trek: The Next Generation," studios found a way to make the genre work on independent stations by selling off broadcast rights to other countries--which love American action product--and splitting advertising time on the series with stations. Independent stations also have time on their schedules to repeat episodes and raise the cumulative ratings of these shows, in turn raising the cost to advertise on them.

"Deep Space Nine," "Untouchables," "Kung Fu" and "Time Trax" have dropped considerably from their premieres, now that their early promotional campaigns are over and reruns are creeping in. But they are doing better on average than the programs that aired in their time slots the year before--one of the truest measures of success for a syndicated series.

Although "Kung Fu" and "Time Trax" receive lower ratings than the other two, they are still considered successful. Their weekly budgets are almost half of the $1.7 million that Paramount spends on each episode of "Deep Space Nine" and "Untouchables," which have better time periods on stronger stations.

Steve Goldman, president of Paramount Domestic Television, said that "Untouchables" is in line with the studio's early projections--it needs a 6.5 rating to survive, he estimates, and currently averages slightly over a 7--but "Deep Space Nine" has taken the industry by surprise.

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