Times Staff Writer

What's the hottest show on TV?

"The Cosby Show," prime time's top-ranked series, would be a good answer. It certainly would get no argument from the legion of NBC employees staffing the network's press preview sessions earlier this week at the Century Plaza hotel.

But ask any of the 1,150 members of the Assn. of Independent Television Stations (INTV) who were gathered through Wednesday at the same hotel and the likely answer would be "Wheel of Fortune."

Brothers Roger and Michael King, chairman and president of KingWorld Enterprises, use no qualifiers when they refer to "Wheel" as "the top show in TV." To the managers of the nation's growing number of independent stations--each a programming czar in his or her own realm--no show is better than the game show with the spinning wheel and the incomplete phrases. In the "access" time slot preceding or following network news--a time period from which the networks are banned by government regulation--"Wheel" brings in a rating higher than many prime-time network shows.

Independent TV stations are the flip side of network TV. Represented here since Saturday and soon to descend upon New Orleans for the National Assn. of Television Programming Executives' convention (NATPE), the community of independents is a reverse world where sitcoms run during the news hour, the news runs in prime time and the big breadwinners are old reruns and new kid shows.

In its 13th year, the annual INTV convention, until recent years a setting for seminars-cum-socializing, has grown into a full-blown marketplace. Three floors of the Century Plaza--up from two last year--offered suite after suite in which station representatives could preview shows, have a nosh and listen to demographic figures recited by fleets of dark-suited men and primly dressed woman.

At KingWorld, they can hardly push "Wheel" anymore, because it's already available in every market in the country. Nor do they want to offer a competing game show that would detract from "Wheel's" fortunes.

That's why the one to beat this year could be "Rambo," with an animated Stallone clone targeted for the lucrative kids' market. Independents don't run cartoons on Saturday mornings, when the network competition is heavy--but they do plug them in every day from 7 to 9 a.m. and from 3 to 5 p.m.

" 'Rambo'? Sure, we're looking at it," said Bill Knight of WXNE, a nine-year-old Boston UHF station that has made significant ratings headway with kids' counterprogramming. What Knight looked at was a short demonstration video at the Worldvision suite showing the cartoon Rambo in action. "At one with nature, sharing skills that teach," the narrator on the video monitor said, accompanying an image of Rambo around a campfire with kids. The next line is ". . . and skills for survival," upon which Rambo fires an incendiary-tipped arrow at a fortress and topples a wall.

"I think there's an immediate market for this," said Worldvision representative Paul Danylik. Half the nation's TV markets have bought the show in one month's time, Danylik said.

Will Rambo have neighborhood kids practicing their "survival skills" in the street? Danylik doesn't think so. "We're changing the character" from the movie version, he said. In the new cartoon, Rambo, along with two new sidekicks, Cat and Turbo, "works for the Pentagon. He is a law-and-order type."

Others might prefer the gentler cartoon antics of another movie spin-off, "The Real Ghostbusters," being sold in advance for the fall of 1987. That's the title of the cartoon from Columbia Pictures Television, as distinguished from "Filmation's Ghostbusters," which stars two men and an ape and has nothing to do with the hit movie.

If your program choices lean toward live people in unreal situations, the market is burgeoning with sitcoms made for "first-run syndication," that is, shows produced directly for independents or for network affiliates in time periods not programmed by the networks. This market has been encouraged by the success of "Small Wonder," a sitcom about a little-girl robot currently the third-ranked of all syndicated sitcoms (right behind the "off-network" shows "MASH" and "Three's Company").

This year, distributors are pitching such shows as "Check It Out," starring Don Adams as a supermarket manager; "Throb," starring Diana Canova and Jonathan Prince ("the new Michael J. Fox," said one saleswoman) as record company employees, and "Hangin' In," originally produced for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

KingWorld, meanwhile, doesn't want to rely on "Wheel" alone. The company has targeted the other "dayparts" ripe for plucking and are offering the shows with which to do it. "Rock 'n' Roll Evening News" is aimed for a weekend evening or once a week in "late night," after 11:30 p.m.; "The Oprah Winfrey Show," a successful Chicago talk show hosted by one of the stars of "The Color Purple," for the mid-morning slot occupied in most of the country by Phil Donahue; "Night Life," with David Brenner and Billy Preston as host and bandleader of a half-hour late-night offering in "The Tonight Show" mold, and "True Confessions," designed to hook afternoon soap-watchers with a new half hour story every day, hosted by Bill Bixby.

And for those who are looking for a new game show, there's always the new "Hollywood Squares" from Orion Television, the same company offering reruns of "Cagney & Lacey" and old "Avengers" episodes. Asked about the lineup on the new "Squares," sales representative Scott Towle said, "We're bringing nobody back from the dead, I assure you."

Most of the suites were occupied by company's whose primary product is old movies, some hot off the screen, some the average viewer has never heard of.

Where does it all lead for the home viewer?

A panel discussion featuring several production executives was laughingly introduced with a video reel showing such fictitious stations as KAGE, for older viewers, WARR, the real man's station and KLAF, the all-sitcom station.

But the real aim of independents is not merely to counterprogram the networks, but to out -program them. "We've got to find a way to make things that are as good or better than the networks," said Alan Courtney, vice president of Gaylord Productions. "Groups of you should band together to buy shows you believe in."

Courtney's comments were enthusiastically received, but INTV members barely had time to consider them. "It gives you an interesting perspective," WTIC-TV, Hartford's Dave Uhrich said. But, he added, "This is more of a social event in some cases."

Besides, most buyers and sellers are awaiting the really big show--NATPE, where an entire exhibition floor is devoted to new and old shows available for syndication. INTV whets the station representatives' appetite. "NATPE," said Orion's Towle, "is the mopping-up show."

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