Maybe it's the competition, or the hint of violence, or the skimpy costumes. Or maybe it's just the novelty for television audiences that have seen everything.
Whatever the reason, "American Gladiators," a syndicated program shown by more than 150 stations nationwide -- including WJZ (Channel 13) which broadcasts it at 12:30 p.m. Saturdays -- is drawing more viewers every week who find something special in its peculiar melding of sporting event and game show.
Although the show is hardly ready for prime time, its steadily growing ratings, up from 2.8 in September 1989 to 4.9 currently, make it one of the most successful syndicated programs on television after nearly two years on the air.
Between 12 million and 15 million people every week watch the show, which is syndicated by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. in Los Angeles.
and run by stations at various times during the weekend.
Exactly what it is and why so many people are watching it are harder to explain. The show is like a video game or a comic book come to life.
The contestants bat and punch and swipe at their opponents, dueling on pedestals or trying to evade tennis balls shooting toward them at 100 mph.
Both the 10 resident gladiators, who have muscles like rocks and
names like Ice and Gemini, and a parade of challengers, who are dentists and firefighters and businessmen and bodyguards, are made personal to the viewers through interviews in which they speak of their hopes and dreams.
The show is popular with men, women and children in many parts of the country. In New York, where it runs twice each weekend, ratings are up 300 percent in the last year. In Cincinnati, about 32,000 people over the age of 2 watch the show, of the 500,000 reached by the cable channel WSTR, Star 64 Television. But it's not exactly a hot topic of conversation.
"If you ask 100 people on the street, nobody watches it," said David Smith, the Cincinnati station's general manager. "I think people watch it who might not readily admit it."
Some die-hard fans have no such qualms. Lisa Maria of Richton Park, Ill., says she watches the program faithfully with her 4-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and that she likes "Gladiators" for the role models it offers her daughter.
"There are five women out there kicking butt, just like the men," she said. Cartoons, she said, tend to show the women just following the men around and acting stupidly.
Her daughter seems to agree; she would rather watch "Gladiators" than "Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles," for instance.
Indeed, Elizabeth likes the show so much that her mother has signedher up for the fan club sponsored by the syndicator, which brought a call from Ice, her favorite gladiator.
It seems to have had a positive effect. "Her wanting to be a gladiator is so great," Mrs. Maria said. "I can say: 'Gladiators don't eat potato chips. They eat bananas.' And she will listen."
Mrs. Maria said she likes the show for the action and for its improbable nature: "To think," she said, "that these are real people getting knocked off platforms." She also said she believed that men like the show for "the sexual thing."
That is not what the men say. They compare watching "American Gladiators" with watching football or wrestling.
Joel Himelhoch, a sophomore at Boston University, says he is attracted by what he considers the pure competition between the gladiator and the challenger. "The gladiator is some big muscular guy or girl," he said. "When the contestant wins, it's hooray for the little guy."
The show is different from other television contests, though, because the events are bizarre. "They are doing things that that are different, that you don't see, like rolling in cages," said Jeffrey Miller, a real-estate broker in northern New Jersey.
Eric Hanson, a student at the University of California at San Diego, says he liked the show as a "comical outlet" and that it takes him back to his pre-teen years. "My older brother and I would set up obstacle courses," he said. "It reminds me of that."