Xena, Herc: The Stuff of TV legends

Fantasy, action win loyal fans

by Jim Abbott

©The Orlando Sentinel
Friday, January 10, 1997

Kathy Ross generally doesn't do things on the spur of the moment - and she doesn't watch much TV.

The 28-year-old Orlando resident - an exercise physiologist with a master's degree from the University of Central Florida - says most prime-time fare is "totally ridiculous."

But she can't miss Xena: Warrior Princess, the syndicated series that combines elements of mythology with martial arts action administered by a leather-clad beauty.

"My family thinks I'm crazy," Ross said. "My husband doesn't, luckily."

Ross isn't alone in her devotion.

Xena and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys have inspired a following reminiscent of the original Star Trek TV series.

Few in the TV industry anticipated that Hercules would spark such interest when it debuted in January 1995. Nine months later the show had spawned a spinoff in Xena.

Each week, the syndicated dramas are viewed by millions in the United States. Internationally the shows air in 15 to 20 countries, including Germany, France, Argentina, Australia and the location where they are filmed - New Zealand. An international Hercules/Xena convention is planned for Saturday and Sunday in Burbank, California.

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. Sometimes they find themselves doing things they never imagined.

Ross, for instance, jetted to Los Angeles on a whim in October to get in the studio audience for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. All because she heard the night before that Xena star Lucy Lawless was to be a guest.

This summer, she auditioned - unsuccessfully - to play the Xena character at Universal Studios Florida - despite having no acting experience and being 10 inches shorter than the required height.

The popularity of Xena and Hercules is responsible for a new wave of gothic fantasy fare on TV this season - including Tarzan: the Epic Adventures (which filmed its original two-hour pilot in Central Florida), The Adventures of Sinbad, and The New Adventures of Robin Hood, a show that debuts Monday on TNT. 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 4 million viewers each. Tarzan finishes 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 TNT.

"You always need something to prove that people will watch," Mateas said. "Because Hercules has done so well, it allows for other shows of the same type to come along."

So far this season, Hercules and Xena rank second and third in ratings for U.S. households among syndicated dramas behind Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Hercules averages 8 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 because they attract such 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 Advanswers Media in St. Louis, a company that sells TV time to advertisers. "They've done a fine job of promoting them."

Rob Tapert, co-executive producer of both shows with film maker Sam Raimi, said the key is to create likable characters.

"The success tells me very specifically that people don't want to turn on their TV to invite a bad guy into their living room every week," said Tapert. "They want somebody they like."

Ross agrees. That's why she videotapes Xena and fits it into her busy schedule - something she doesn't bother to do with Seinfeld, NYPD Blue, ER or other mainstream offerings.

Ross prefers Xena to such testosterone-fueled heroes such as Rambo, James Bond, the Terminator - and even Hercules.

You don't see that many strong women characters out there," Ross said. "She's a lover and a mother and a friend - she wears all the hats."

Ross appreciates the positive moral messages she finds in Xena, where the allusions are just as often biblical as sexual.

Another fan said the same thing about Hercules, which stars Kevin Sorbo as the mythological son of Zeus and Alcmene.

Kristine Mayer, a psychologist in Tulsa, Oklahoma, started watching Hercules with her sons, 7 and 4, about a month before the Oklahoma City bombing.

"Right about the time that we were basically losing our innocence countrywide, this was one bright spot I could focus my kids on," Mayer said. "It's a true escape show that's silly and harmless, and it has ethical points."

It also has vast marketing potential. Action figures and sound-effect swords are moving briskly in toy stores throughout the country, according to Toy Biz, the New York company that makes them.

In the works are computer screen-savers, interactive video games, mugs, apparel and novels for adults and kids.

Both series are renewed through 1998, and Tapert expects them to continue another two years after that. There's also an animated direct-to-video movie scheduled for release next year and a Young Hercules project under discussion. If a feature film is made, it will probably be 10 years down the road, Tapert said.

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 favorite show of the fictional characters Kevin and Jamie (Ron Eldard, Rob Schneider) on NBC's Men Behaving Badly. A fantasy scene in a Roseanne episode last season was a direct reference to a Xena storyline.

It's a cultural thing now," Carpenter said. "The way Star Trek influenced pop culture, that's exactly whats happening with Hercules and Xena."

Kathy Ross

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