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'Baywatch' Has a Cow, Man, London Style

Television: British network yanks five episodes at the very thought of competition from 'The Simpsons.'

November 20, 1996|DAVID GRITTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — For seven years now, it has been a ritual religiously observed by millions of British males, young and old.

It starts at 4:45 on Saturday afternoons, when they nestle in front of their TV screens to catch the nation's soccer scores.

And immediately afterward, they segue into a little light lechery--ogling the babes from "Baywatch."

But no more. ITV, Britain's commercial network, has cruelly yanked "Baywatch" from its apparently unassailable tea-time slot at a week's notice, with five episodes of its seventh season still to run.

Why? Blame it on Bart.

This Saturday at 5:20 p.m., ITV's rival network, BBC1, will be airing the first of 60 episodes of "The Simpsons." The dysfunctional cartoon family, never before seen by British network TV viewers, has kicked sand in the faces of Pamela Anderson Lee and her curvy compatriots even before the BBC aired the show: ITV calculated "The Simpsons" would blow "Baywatch" out of the water, so pulled it.

In its place, ITV has scheduled another American series, ABC's "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." The network originally planned to introduce the new show shortly before Christmas.

This furious rescheduling represents a major psychological victory for the BBC, which paid Rupert Murdoch's satellite TV company Sky a reported 500,000 pounds ($835,000) for British terrestrial rights to screen the 60 "Simpsons" episodes.

Although "The Simpsons" is among the most popular series on Sky, only a minority of British homes have bought satellite dishes to subscribe to the company's programming. Yet British teenagers in homes with dishes and VCRs routinely tape Bart and Homer's antics for friends in non-Sky households.

The BBC appears to have gotten itself a bargain, although it remains to be seen if the hip cultural references that litter "The Simpsons" are too specifically American to lift the series from its current cult status here and attract a mass British audience.

Liam Hamilton, director of broadcasting at London Weekend Television, one of the companies that supplies programming to ITV, preferred to see the decision to move "Sabrina" forward five weeks early as a strategy to fight the BBC and "The Simpsons" head-on.

"It was a difficult decision," he said. " 'Baywatch' alone is not going to be able to hold off 'The Simpsons.' We had to decide whether we could afford to let 'The Simpsons' establish itself or go in right at the start on an equal head-to-head basis with 'Sabrina.' "

Ironically, London Weekend was one of a number of international companies that ensured the survival of "Baywatch" when it was canceled by NBC in 1990. This cash boost from abroad allowed it to continue in the U.S. as a syndicated series and to flourish as a hit show worldwide, with an estimated 1 billion viewers in 142 countries.

"Baywatch" certainly made a huge impact in Britain--far more than, say, Britain's "Masterpiece Theatre" has ever made in America. At its high-water mark three years ago, "Baywatch" attracted predominantly male audiences of about 10 million--about one-sixth of Britain's population.

Yet in its last two seasons its appeal has drastically ebbed, and viewing figures are down to about 6 million.

British connoisseurs of jiggle were relieved this week to learn that they have not seen those bronzed, pneumatic bodies loping in slo-mo across the beaches of Los Angeles for the last time.

" 'Baywatch' will return," confirmed Hamilton. "I'd be stunned if it doesn't." Other ITV sources predicted that the five yanked episodes would be broadcast in the spring.

Meanwhile, Saturday tea-times here will lack a certain something.

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