'Gladiators' survive in a tough arena

June 27, 1994|By Daniel Cerone | Daniel Cerone,Los Angeles Times

The "American Gladiators," those muscle-bound warriors in red-white-and-blue spandex tights, have become a familiar sight on television. Maybe a little too familiar. Their successful syndicated TV show is 5 years old, and their ratings last season dipped slightly for the second straight year.

They need to recapture America's imagination. They need an exciting new challenge. They need a familiar contender whom viewers might relish seeing tossed around like a rag doll.

They need Tonya Harding.

And she has committed to take on the gladiators next season in an episode of the show, scheduled for taping this week, provided details can be worked out with her parole officer, said Julie Resh, vice president of television production and development for the Samuel Goldwyn Co.

"What we're very dependent on is competition that intrigues the audience," explained Samuel Goldwyn Jr., chairman of the Samuel Goldwyn Co. "Just watching the gladiators isn't enough after five or six years. For the show to stay on the air, you have to keep evolving to keep it fresh."

"Gladiators" and the short-lived "Roller Games" created a new genre of TV in 1989, dubbed "crash-and-trash" by critics, and no show in the category has worked harder to stay fresh than "Gladiators." Through the years, a horde of wild physical game shows have tried to joust the gladiators off their perch: the syndicated "Knights and Warriors," USA Network's "Gonzo Games," Nickelodeon's "Guts." Still more are coming: MTV's "Sand Blast" and the new syndicated series "Blade Warriors" and "BeachClash."

But the gladiators have remained standing. They are now in production on their sixth season. In fact, despite a national rating last year of 3.9, compared with 4.3 for the series' peak season two years ago, the "Gladiators" enterprise has never been stronger.

The syndicated program can be seen in 52 countries and is in cable reruns on USA. One hundred licensees worldwide are selling products based on the show's colorful characters -- with names such as Ice, Laser, Nitro and Sabre -- and licensing revenue has been estimated near $30 million.

The United Kingdom and Finland are producing their own versions of "Gladiators," featuring local gladiators and contenders, and Russia is scheduled to follow suit this year. Talks are under way to bring the show to Australia and Spain, as well.

Action director Renny Harlin ("Die Hard II," "Cliffhanger"), who personally directs and produces the "Gladiators" in Finland with a partner of his there, plans to produce a feature film for this country. "Wyatt Earp" writer Dan Gordon is working on the screenplay. And now Goldwyn is readying the first direct spinoff, "Gladiators 2000," and an "American Gladiators" companion piece, "Wild West Showdown," for a syndicated launch in September.

In "Gladiators 2000," kids will compete against each other in physical and mental competitions while being coached and instructed on matters of health, nutrition, cleanliness and physical fitness by the gladiators. If children lose a physical component of the game, they can earn points with mental challenges based on information taught by the gladiators in each episode.

"Wild West," meanwhile, will drop three adult competitors each week into an 1880s frontier town -- the Disney Ranch in Santa Clarita, Calif., actually.

"The show is based on the idea that you secretly have always wanted to be Clint Eastwood, and there's a town nobody has ever been able to clean up," said Mr. Goldwyn, whose P. T. Barnum image with "Gladiators" is in stark contrast to the films his independent company releases, including the coming RTC "Oleanna," written and directed by David Mamet.

"You go back in time and try to clean up this town overrun by bad guys," Mr. Goldwyn continued. That means gunfights, saloon brawls and even a runaway stagecoach the contenders must catch up with and bring to a halt.

Mr. Goldwyn's openness to new ideas is also responsible for Harding, an Olympic figure skater, competing on "Gladiators" against Cathy Turner, an Olympic speed skater. Normally, the competitors are non-celebrities recruited for their athletic skills, pitted against each other and the gladiators. But for the new season, beginning in September, eight of the 27 episodes currently under production will play up existing rivalries to punch up the action -- and the ratings.

Competing will be former USC and Notre Dame football players, officers from the Los Angeles and New York police departments, the international gladiators from the foreign series and members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, who battled in the highest-rated episode last season. Dean Cain, who plays Superman in ABC's "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," will be in a celebrity episode.

So what's next on the "Gladiators" evolutionary scale?

"We're talking about a permanent show in Las Vegas, right on the Strip," Mr. Goldwyn said.

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