by Jim Abbott
XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, a syndicated TV series combining elements of mythology with martial arts action, along with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, are inspiring a following reminiscent of the original Star Trek.
Few in the TV industry anticipated that Hercules would spark such interest when it made its debut in January 1995. Nine months later, the show had spawned a spin-off in Xena. Each week, the syndicated dramas are viewed by millions in 20 countries, including Australia and the location where they are filmed, New Zealand (Kiwi actor Lucy Lawless stars as Xena).
Thousands of fans communicate on the World Wide Web, which includes MCA TV's two official show sites and an expanding array of privately produced home pages.
The popularity of Xena and Hercules is responsible for a new wave of gothic fantasy fare on American TV this season including Tarzan: The Epic Adventures, The Adventures of Sinbad, and The New Ad- ventures of Robin Hood. Highlander, another action series in the genre, is in its fifth season. Season-to-date, Sinbad and Highlander rank in the top 10 among nationally syndicated dramas, drawing an average of about four million American viewers each. Tarzan is at No 21, with 2.4 million.
Without the success of Hercules, there wouldn't be a Robin Hood, said Lisa Mateas, senior vice president of programming at the TNT ca- ble company.
"You always need something to prove that people will watch. Because Hercules has done so well, it allows for other shows type to come along."
So far this season, Hercules and Xena rank second and third in ratings for US households among syndicated dramas behind Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Hercules averages eight million viewers a week, with Xena drawing 7.8 million.
Gothic fantasy shows such as Hercules and Xena owe their identity to classic literature and mythology: as well as the cartoonish fight scenes of Hong Kong movies. Although the characters are different, each show features a common thread of nonstop action, good-looking stars and a battle between good and evil.
Advertisers like the shows be cause they attract a broad audience of men, women and children, an industry observer said.
"They do well across almost all demographics," said Donna Hathaway, a vice president with Advancers Media in St Louis, a company that sells TV time to advertisers. "They've done a fine job of promoting them. The same way StarTrek influenced pop culture, that's exactly what's happening with Hercules and Xena."
Rob Tapert, co-executive producer of both shows with film maker Sam Raimi, said the key is to create likeable characters.
Hercules and Xena also have vast marketing potential. Action figures and sound-effects swords inspired by the shows are moving briskly in toy stores throughout the country, according to Toy Biz, the New York company that makes them.
Equally important, Xena and Hercules are earning a place in popular culture via the tube, said Brad Carpenter, merchandising and marketing director for Renaissance Pictures.
Xena, for instance, is the favourite show of the fictional characters Kevin and Jamie (Ron Eldard, Rob Schneider) on NBC's Men Behaving Badly. A fantasy scene in Roseanne episode last season was a direct reference to a Xena story line.
"It's a cultural thing now," Carpenter said. "The way Star Trek influenced pop culture, that's exactly what's happening with Hercules and Xena."
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