NEW YORK — – Perhaps you're home early from work, or home very late from a night out.
Rather than take in the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling machine infomercial yet again, you decide to flip around and watch ... a drama about a woman named Cleopatra whose breast implant surgery goes awry and leads her to awake in the year 2525 as a heroine for humanity (Cleopatra 2525)?
Or how about Wayne's ex-girlfriend, Tia Carrere, as a history professor who moonlights as an adventurer recovering the world's stolen artifacts (Relic Hunter)?
You're not drunk or overtired. Well, perhaps you are, but these syndicated programs are not your imagination. They are floating out there, somewhere, along with a raft of other wacky fantasy, sci-fi and Baywatchesque shows that seek to be the next Xena: Warrior Princess.
With Xena on the way out, she'll need a replacement. The Warrior Princess played by Lucy Lawless inspired a cult following when she debuted five years ago, but her sixth and final season finishes airing next summer. Xena's male counterpart, Hercules, went the way of the breastplate last year.
Studios USA also announced this fall that it had pulled the plug on the half-hour adventure show Jack of All Trades, which will air its final episodes in January. The studio said shows were suffering as the expansion of the WB and UPN networks ate up primetime slots. Xena and other syndicated programming used to fill the gaps left by the big four networks; but as WB and UPN began producing their own primetime lineups, scheduling real estate narrowed.
Domestic television president Steve Rosenberg told the Hollywood Reporter, "It's more a product of the time-period availability decline. ... The average viewer didn't know the difference between our show and the WB Network."
Ira Bernstein, who distributes the Canadian-produced Relic Hunter and 19th-century California adventure hour Queen of Swords through his Mercury Entertainment, agrees that competition for time slots has gotten more intense over the last few years.
"You can't just put girls in loincloths and expect that everybody's gonna watch," he says. He notes that most big studios are getting out of the action-adventure genre, finding that the return on investment isn't what it used to be.
"The [production companies I work with] are Canadian companies, where if they can throw off a two- or three-million-dollar profit, that's a big deal to them. For a studio it's not worth the work," Bernstein observes.
So far, Xena's and Jack's misfortunes are a boon for Cleopatra 2525, which is getting expanded to one hour. Its biggest competition comes from the Gene Roddenberry sci-fi twin threat of freshman series. Andromeda — featuring the former Hercules, Kevin Sorbo, as commander of the titular peacekeeping starship — is the top-rated first-run weekly, according to the most recent figures from Nielsen. Roddenberry's humans versus aliens drama Earth: Final Conflict is, like Andromeda, from Tribune Entertainment, which also produces solid performer Beastmaster, starring friend-of-the-animals hero Dar. Another contender is a space-cult fantasy, Stargate SG-1 (MGM).
So far, it seems Xena hasn't found a true successor. At Yahoo! Clubs, for example, where members can post messages and trade e-mail info on their favorite pursuits, Xena and Stargate are among the most popular cults for syndicated programming, each claiming over 100 clubs with hundreds of fans. Others, such as Andromeda and female-Tarzan "protector of the jungle" Sheena, have smaller but solidly dedicated online communities.
Even if the advent of cheaper-to-produce talk and court shows means tougher competition for syndicated fantasy, the genre is far from fallow. Several new offerings are in development for presentation to the National Association of Television Programming Executives in Las Vegas this January.
Among the series being shopped: Hard Knox, a detective drama with ex-Melrose Place star Thomas Calabro, and action show Trackers; sci-fi/fantasy adventures Secret Adventures of Jules Verne and Mutant X; and in the just plain bizarre category, ex trash mouth comic Andrew "Dice" Clay stars as a modern-day hustler stuck in ancient Rome for Colosseum.
May we offer you another drink?