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When syndication ruled the waves

By Josh Hadley

The initial boom of First Run Syndication was so strong that the network pushback inevitably broke it’s back … but only for a short while as the independent stations still needed that programming (even the ones that became FOX stations, remember kids, FOX only had original programming for two hours a night six days a week, that still left a lot of time to fill), a second boom was coming and it was arguably larger than the first.

You still had shows such as “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Superboy” and “The Munsters Today” going strong during this transition from generation one to generation two, and as the 1990s rolled in, you almost got yet another ad-hock network. UPN would officially launch in 1995 with the premiere of “Star Trek: Voyager” but did you know it was attempted as early as 1990, by Universal though and not Paramount (the “P” in UPN).  Universal tested the waters with a mini-network of three shows meant to see if this kind of thing could operate as a kind of floating channel. “She-Wolf Of London” (later retitled “Love And Curses,”) “They Came From Outer Space” and “Shades Of LA” were sold as a package to stations under the banner of Hollywood Premiere Network with custom banners and everything. All three shows failed to make it into a second season and this little experiment seemingly failed until “Baywatch” was cancelled by NBC, and rather than take that the producers went the First Run Syndication route … and a legend was born. “Baywatch” killed it in the ratings and soon other network cast offs rolled in (last week I mentioned “21 Jumpstreet” and “Punky Brewster” but also “Forever Knight” and the short lived female cop series “Sirens” and similar shows did the same). “Baywatch” even had its own spin-off, “Baywatch Nights” in 1995 which was a radical departure for even that ridiculous series. The first season of “Baywatch Nights” was a detective show, nothing more, nothing less, but by season 2 “The X-files” was a full blown phenomenon and so “Baywatch Nights” followed it by making these lifeguard/PI’s investigate aliens, space spores, time travelers, vampires, mummies, werewolves, the devil himself (I am serious) and even had Mitch single handedly take down the Illuminati. Yeah, it got that nuts.

With this second boom coming in under “Baywatch” it seemed that those floodgates opened anew with hit series “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,” “Xena: Warrior Princess,” “Highlander: The Series” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” giving the networks a severe threatening glance. Hell, at one point “Baywatch” was literally the most popular television show in the world, being syndicated in over 40 countries and breaking records internationally … until a paint by numbers PI/Bounty Hunter show called “Renegade” came along and actually dethroned “Baywatch,” which old bolstered the money-men into trying stranger and even more niche First Run Syndicated programming. “Soldier Of Fortune Inc/Special Ops Force,” “Viper,” “F/X: The Series,” “V.I.P.,” “Cobra,” “Relic Hunter,” “The New WKRP In Cincinnati,” “Harry And The Hendersons,” “Time Trax,” “Babylon 5,” “Beastmaster,” “Earth: Final Conflict,” “Conan The Barbarian” and even Stacey Keatch returning as “Mike Hammer” all ran for a season or more to sate any taste, from sci-fi to action to comedy to adventure. You even had the shows that no one remembers from this era such as “Cleopatra 2525” and “Jack Of All Trades” plus pilot movies such as the incredibly fun “Adventures Of Captain Zoom In Outer Space” which never got picked up.

The First Run Syndication boom got to be so big that some shows were picked up by cable stations and became cable shows. The USA network grabbed up “Tek-War” after its four movies aired in First Run Syndication as well as the final season of “Forever Knight” along with network castoffs “Silk Stalkings,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and the HBO series “The Hitchhiker.” TNT snatched up “Babylon 5” and after finishing that series even produced four movies and a spin-off series “Crusade” (later on the Sci-Fi Channel would even go further by attempting yet another spin-off of “Babylon 5” called “Legend Of The Rangers”).

As cable started to pick up these series from the First Run Syndication market and with UPN finally doing what the Hollywood Premiere Network had attempted five years prior, the very market for First Run Syndication programming started to dwindle. Some shows tried to play in this ever-decreasing marketplace but found little success where if they had come out just two years prior they would have been hits. “Andromeda,” “Mutant X,” the rebooted “Earth: Final Conflict” and “Poltergeist: The Legacy” never really found the audience they should have, they simply arrived too late to the party and ironically had a greater impact years later when they were shown on the Sci-Fi Channel. Cartoons on the other hand lasted longer in First Run Syndication.  “The Disney Afternoon” (which consisted of multiple shows) and “Batman: The Animated Series” were hits for far longer than most of their live action First Run Syndication brethren.

First Run Syndication is all but a dead stick at this point, with the cable channels taking the shows that 10 years ago would have been First Run Syndication and this is both good and bad, good in that they can find a better and more stable home with a specific network rather than the random (from market to market) airing they would get on indy stations but bad in that this then stripped those indy stations of the identity they once had and forced more infomercials on these stations which has all but killed what indy channels used to be.

I hope you liked this little sojourn into an area of TV you most likely knew about, but not by the details.

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