Sometimes the TV show voted least likely to succeed can end up thumbing its nose at all the prognosticators. Take the case of ABC's "The Young Riders."
Introduced last season, it won some critical praise but not much of anything else. Tossed into the Thursday night shooting gallery, where NBC picked off rival shows like so many clay pigeons, it served mainly as target practice for "Cheers."
NBC's top-rated powerhouse lineup wasn't the only notch against "Young Riders," either. It was a western, a genre generally ignored by the young viewers ABC wanted to attract. Worse yet, it was considered by many to be a shameless knockoff of "Young Guns," the hit movie about teen gunslingers in the Old West.
So, it was something of an eyebrow-raiser when ABC not only renewed "Young Riders" for another season but made it the leadoff show for the network's Saturday night lineup.
It was widely viewed as a goofy move by ABC programming chief Bob Iger: Using a low-rated western as the lead-in to the prestigious "China Beach" and "Twin Peaks."
It looked like an even dumber move when NBC decided to program the same Saturday hour with two of its most critically acclaimed new comedies, "Parenthood" and "Working It Out." NBC already owned the night from 9 o'clock on with its popular "Golden Girls"-"Empty Nest" combo. A ratings rout seemed in prospect.
So here's the startling news: In the first seven weeks of the new season, "Young Riders" has won the time period five times, coming in second to NBC only once -- on Oct. 10. (It was pre-empted for a movie on Oct. 20, a night won by CBS with its World Series coverage.)
"Young Riders" also has consistently outperformed both of its more highly regarded running mates, "China Beach" and "Twin Peaks," in the ratings.
By no means is "Young Riders" a big hit, though. It averaged only 17 percent of those watching TV at the time. The highest it has placed in the weekly Nielsens is 57th.
Still, "Young Riders" is consistently more popular with viewers than anything opposite it on CBS, NBC and Fox. Its attractive young cast is slowly picking up fans among teens, even though it's on a night when most of them aren't watching TV.
What this demonstrates is how quixotic the TV business is today. Despite all the odds against it, "Young Riders" has built a small but loyal following and is a consistent winner.
"Young Riders" has survived and, to a limited degree, prospered because it is the most familiar show in its time period. Its cadre of followers trailed it to its new time period this fall, so it had an established audience it could supplement with newcomers who didn't care for the new shows on the other networks.
NBC's Brandon Tartikoff, who led his network to No. 1 in programming, used this technique repeatedly to build shows with low or so-so ratings into solid winners.
A good example is NBC's "Hunter," which began as a lowly regarded, low-rated show that many considered a "Dirty Harry" knockoff. It, too, began in a killer time slot -- Fridays at 9 p.m. opposite CBS' "Dallas," then TV's No. 1 show.
That was seven seasons ago. "Hunter" is now No. 1 in its time period, Wednesday nights at 10, where it wallops two programs better liked by most critics, CBS' "WIOU" and ABC's "Cop Rock." It finished last season as No. 24 among all prime time shows.
That turnaround happened because Tartikoff let "Hunter" slowly find an audience. It became a bona fide hit when he moved it to Saturday nights at 10, where the enormous audience for NBC's comedies found and adopted it.
By picking a new time slot carefully, Tartikoff's successor, Warren Littlefield, has kept "Hunter" a winner and helped the network win Wednesday nights through most of the new season.
Though it doesn't always work -- NBC's determination to make "Quantum Leap" a hit by displaying lots of faith in it so far is a miserable failure -- networks will give low-rated shows like "Young Riders" much more time to succeed in future seasons.