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Newest ‘Star Trek’ Zooms at Warp Speed : ‘Next Generation’ Series Scores With Viewers and Critics Alike

It took many light years, many Earth years and many repeated adventures across the universe for Kirk, Spock, Scotty and the rest of the gang from the original “Star Trek” television series to embed themselves permanently in the cultural iconography.

It has taken “Star Trek: The Next Generation” only a handful of jaunts around the galaxy to become a legitimate cult phenomenon in its own right.

Without the help of any established network and despite some skepticism by nostalgia buffs and fans of the original series, the new “Star Trek"--from its opening voyage in first-run syndication last fall--has earned the highest ratings of any weekly syndicated show in the past decade, according to Paramount Television.

And in a ceremony in New York on Wednesday, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” will become the first syndicated program ever to win a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting--one of the most prestigious honors in the world of radio and television. (“L.A. Law” was the only other regularly scheduled entertainment program to win the award this year.)

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How did it happen? Is “Star Trek,” in any form, really that magical?

It is no surprise that Paramount would dip into its cedar chest of proven box-office bonanzas and dust off what Mel Harris, president of the studio’s television group, calls “one of the family jewels” in search of another commercial windfall.

This is, after all, the same studio that has produced four “Star Trek” motion pictures with the fifth on the way, two “Raiders of the Lost Arks,” two “Beverly Hills Cops,” “The Untouchables” movie based on the old television show and a syndicated television series adapted from the many “Friday the 13th” films.

But talk of reviving “Star Trek” for television, says Harris, had been spinning around the lot for 10 years. Those involved worried about distinguishing the new “Star Trek” from the original TV series and the string of successful theatrical releases starring the original cast.

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What Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the new and old “Star Treks,” and Paramount came up with was an entirely new cast, an 80-year interval between the old and new series and an updated collection of morality plays about good and evil, right and wrong, reality and illusion--all punctuated with some of the most sophisticated visual effects ever seen on television--that they now call “The Next Generation.”

All three major networks and the Fox Broadcasting Co., Harris said, expressed interest in the new series, but none of them was willing to buy a full season of 26 episodes, to guarantee Paramount a set time period or to promise support of the show with an intensive promotional campaign.

“We came to the conclusion that nobody was going to give it the same kind of attention and care that we could give it,” Harris said in an interview. “And since it is one of our family jewels, it made no sense to put it into somebody else’s hands for distribution when we had the capability to give it the best possible shot ourselves.”

By spurning the networks, Paramount relinquished the per-episode network licensing fee that producers of network television shows use to offset much of the cost of production. It also assumed the burden of assembling from scratch its own hodgepodge network of some 210 individual television stations across the country that were willing to air the series.

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Paramount solved both of those problems in part by offering the show free to individual stations, retaining the revenue generated by its sale of seven minutes of national advertising per episode. Each station keeps the revenue generated from selling five minutes of local ads each week.

In a sense, though, signing up stations was easy. “Star Trek” had “such a presold recognizable nature to it,” Harris said, that stations everywhere jumped at the chance to carry the new program.

The original series continues to air on 150 stations in the United States and most of them, Harris said, also wanted to broadcast the new series rather than let it end up on a competitor. And Paramount’s willingness to pull out all promotional stops, including merchandising tie-ins that put the Star Trek logo on everything from Frisbies to lunch pails to comic books to Visa credit cards, also enticed stations to jump on the “Star Trek” mothership.

That ad-hoc network secured, Paramount was left to play the ratings game. Believing that good ratings were directly related to how good a show they could churn out, Paramount decided to sink a reported $1.3 million per episode into production--a sum equal to or beyond the cost of most one hour prime-time network programs.

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“We had enormous belief in the idea that this show is about the future of the human race as it might be as opposed to the doomsday, we’re-going-to-have-a-nuclear-holocaust-and-everyone-will-end-up-like-Mad Max view of the future,” Harris said. “And that is something that this generation is no different in embracing than the generation of the 1960s was.”

It will undoubtedly require a few more warp-speed wrestling matches with the most difficult moral questions of our time before Patrick Stewart (the bald, British Shakespearean actor who plays Captain Jean-Luc Picard) and Jonathan Frakes (Picard’s first mate, Cmdr. William Riker) completely exorcise the ghosts of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy and become household names themselves.

Actress Denise Crosby (Lt. Tasha Yar) became the new cast’s first casualty in an episode that aired in Los Angeles on Sunday. Wishing to leave the series, Crosby’s character was killed.

It has taken no time at all for an audience apparently made up of hard-core Trekkies and more recently won devotees to embrace the new “Star Trek” family. In first-run syndication, which means it airs on different days at different times on each of its 210 stations (locally on KCOP-TV Channel 13 Sundays at 5 p.m., repeating Saturdays at 6 p.m.), the new show has earned a national 10.6 Nielsen rating, which translates into an average weekly audience of about 9.4 million households.

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While that total audience is about half what Top-10 network shows, such as “Growing Pains” or “60 Minutes,” produce each week in prime time, it is about equal to such network prime-time staples as “Spencer: For Hire” and “The Disney Sunday Night Movie.”

Playing mostly out of prime time, those numbers, Harris said, exceed Paramount’s initial expectations.

And demographically, the raw data that is used to set advertising rates, the show’s numbers are even more impressive. During the February sweeps, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was the most watched show in its time period among Los Angeles-area men 18-54, according to Don Searle, KCOP’s research director, even beating the Winter Olympics.

The demographics were so good that Paramount’s share of the advertising revenue generated from the series each week is reportedly close to $1 million--greater than the approximately $800,000 license fees the networks generally pay for a one-hour prime-time program.

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That still leaves the studio with a substantial deficit each week for the next several years. But because “Star Trek,” even a new version, is such a known and bankable commodity, Paramount was able to protect itself against having to eat its initial deficits with some creative financial insurance.

At the same time that stations across the country signed up to air the original episodes of the new show, Paramount also required them to purchase the rerun rights a few years down the line, even if the series turned out to be a ratings fiasco.

The studio also limited initial television airings of the show to the United States and Canada, leaving the rest of the world to seek out its own taste of the new “Star Trek” on videocassette. Released on video in only eight countries in Europe and Asia so far, the new show has already grossed $2 million in sales. Harris said the cassettes could also generate anticipation for the series when it finally does reach foreign television a few years hence.

But the Peabody committee doesn’t dole out awards for creative deficit financing. Instead, it honored the show for not giving in to the usual low budget realities of first-run syndication, praising Paramount for investing the financial and creative resources necessary to set a “new standard for first-run programming.”

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“Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the Peabody committee said, offers a challenge to the broadcast world to produce syndicated programming of the “highest quality.”

Will the industry accept that challenge? Will first-run syndication provide another outlet for big-budget, high-quality programming ideas?

Harris, the man at the helm of this critical and financial success, advised caution. He said that with an untried, unproven idea that can guarantee no future value in syndicated reruns, the risks are perhaps too great. It is doubtful, he said, that he would ever oversee a new project along the lines of “Moonlighting” or “Crime Story” in first run syndication.

But Harris said the success of “Star Trek” could encourage other producers and other studios to reach into their libraries and pluck out new versions of some highly exploitable old favorites. MGM/UA, for example, is currently producing a new television series based on “The Dirty Dozen” for Fox Broadcasting and is trying to keep costs down by shooting the series in Yugoslavia.

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“I think ‘Star Trek’ has opened the door on the buyer’s (individual station’s) side with a realization that you can get high quality dramatic fare first run,” said Harris. “The value of having something fresh and original is not being overlooked by stations (which have to this point been dependent largely on syndicated reruns of the original “Star Trek” or other series). Nobody has to look at themselves anymore as only being able to buy used cars.”


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