What Has Four Legs, A Coat Of Oil, And Boffo Ratings?

Zap is back!

Zap is an original star of American Gladiators. She sat out last season's taping of the syndicated television show to have a baby. But this September, professional bodybuilder and onetime paralegal Raye Hollitt will be back on the job--pummeling volunteer masochists aching to act out their fantasies on national TV. What she'll find is a show whose appeal has broadened dramatically, and one that is fast spawning a cottage industry.

American Gladiators was conceived as a beat-'em-up arena attraction akin to professional wrestling. But unlike wrasslin', the outcome of the contests isn't predetermined. Contestants challenge each other in an elimination derby, with the eventual winner earning the right to take on the Gladiators. They try to knock the Gladiators off seven-foot platforms with pugil sticks, long poles padded like boxing gloves at each end. They scamper up sheer 30-foot vertical walls with a Gladiator in hot pursuit. They play a two-on-two game that resembles a hybrid of basketball and a back-alley mugging.

Gladiators, adapted for TV by Samuel Goldwyn Co., a Los Angeles production house, was one of three made-for-TV junk sports that premiered in 1989. TV critics, enamored of Qintex Entertainment Inc.'s flashy Rollergames, gave Goldwyn's show little chance of survival.

But a funny thing happened on the way to renewal time. Rollergames died after a 13-week run, while American Gladiators found an audience. Two audiences, in fact: "We're still reaching the 18-to-34-year-old beer drinker it was designed for," says Richard H. Askin, president of Samuel Goldwyn Television, "but kids turned out to be a pretty avid core of supporters for the show." Youngsters love its simple, cartoon-like heroes and unfeigned competition. By the second season, TV stations in many markets were running it twice a weekend, adding a daytime slot to the original late-night airtime.

And kids mean cash to Corporate America. So Zap and the other Gladiators, including Nitro, Gemini, Laser, Blaze, Lace, and Ice, will return to 160 TV stations for their third season this fall, just about the time an American Gladiators video game goes on sale--along with Gladiator vitamins and sneakers. That's all just by way of prologue to the yearend rollout of Gladiator dolls, er, action figures, from Mattel Inc. The licensing income from Gladiator merchandise, estimated at around $15 million this year, flows mostly to Goldwyn.

Keeping that Gladiators name in front of the public has kept Goldwyn and its stable of athletes extremely busy. Since May, the Gladiators have taped 26 shows, signed seven licensing deals to bring their total to 21, and cut a half-dozen TV commercials for Mattel and video-game publisher Game Tek Inc. "This is getting to be a full-time job," says an amazed Nitro, a.k.a. Dan Clark, the most popular Gladiator and a former linebacker at San Jose State University.

AMATEUR NIGHTS. By September, the hours will get even longer. American Gladiators is going on tour, sponsored by Coca-Cola Co. and Southland Corp.'s 7-Eleven Stores. The traveling troupe's New York-based producer, David Fishof Productions, expects to land more than 100 bookings, with guarantees running from $10,000 to $50,000. On the road, the Gladiators will battle amateurs chosen in local tryouts and also take on a few local celebrities, such as TV sportscasters. The expedition will culminate in national finals in Las Vegas next May.

In essence, American Gladiators is an Electronic Age variant of 19th-century tent shows that traveled from town to town inviting all comers to wrestle a bear or go 10 rounds against the show's strongman. The public hasn't lost its taste for such contests, as evidenced by American Gladiators' TV ratings. Week in and week out, it's among the top five hour-long weekend syndicated shows, averaging 4.2% of U. S. TV households. Professional wrestling is still far ahead, with a 10% audience share, but its heyday as the chic junk sport is over.

Gladiators, by contrast, is just coming into its own. Tryouts for the coming season drew more than 10,000 weekend athletes to four elimination tourneys around the country. As expected, plenty of policemen, pipefitters, and personal trainers turned out. But so did the occasional attorney and physician. The final 48 contenders include a San Diego minister and a couple of chiropractors. If nothing else, the lineup of challengers--and the show's success--is proof positive that Walter Mitty is alive and well in Televisionland.

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