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‘Star Trek’ --Still on the Beam : Television: One year after creator Gene Roddenberry’s death, the born-again series tops the syndication charts.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite the death of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry one year ago, his humanistic vision of the future is being more widely embraced on television than ever before.

For the first four weeks of its fall season, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” has finished as the No. 1 original program in syndicated television. That marks the longest period of time that the perennial ratings champ, “Wheel of Fortune,” has been locked out of the top spot since the A.C. Nielsen Co. began publishing weekly syndication numbers in 1987.

The syndicated spinoff of the original “Star Trek,” which was canceled by NBC in 1969 after three seasons, is averaging a 13.5 national rating (each point represents 931,000 households). While it’s still early in the season, that represents a 22% increase in overall ratings from the 1991-92 season.

The episode two weeks ago featuring James Doohan--who played Scotty in the original series--received the third-highest rating in “Next Generation’s” history. And in Los Angeles, the second half of Monday night’s hourlong episode, in which crew members were turned into 12-year-olds, earned higher ratings for KCOP-TV Channel 13 than the programming on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

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There are many reasons why “The Next Generation,” now in its sixth season, is performing on a ratings level that Paramount claims would rank it as the No. 6 program on network television for adults 18 to 49 (although comparisons are somewhat misleading because about two-thirds of the 248 TV stations that broadcast “Next Generation” give viewers two opportunities a week to watch it).

* Promotion. “The stations that carry ‘The Next Generation’ on a national basis promote it as the crown jewel of their station,” said John S. Pike, president of network television and international co-production for the Paramount Television Group. “Unlike a network that has to promote an entire schedule, a station can ferret out the jewels and promote them.”

* Better time slots. In many markets, “The Next Generation” has been upgraded this season to prime time, when the viewing audience is largest. Four network affiliates, in fact, preempt prime-time network programming to broadcast “The Next Generation.”

* Increasing viewer awareness. Many stations began “stripping” reruns of “The Next Generation” five nights a week this season. John von Soosten, programming vice president for Katz Communications, which sells advertising time for about 200 TV stations, suggested that “there could be a synergy created between the strip program and the original weekly episodes.”

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* Quality. Perhaps most importantly, there are comments from advertisers and stations that “The Next Generation” simply keeps getting better. At nearly $2 million an episode, which is too rich for the belt-tightening networks, the producers argue that nothing on television looks like their show.

“One of the reasons people are taking notice is because for yet another year there’s nothing that compares,” said Janeen Bjork, programming vice president for Seltel, which sells advertising time for 117 TV stations. “I mean, there’s a whole lot of action hours out there that try and never come close. So it may look good, almost by default, when you see what the comers and competitors look like.”

Executive producer Rick Berman, who along with executive producer Michael Piller took over the creative mantle from Roddenberry, offers a more subjective explanation for the show’s success.

“I think more than ever, as television continues to change, and continues to give the audience new and different types of programming, there’s something wonderful about the familiarity of ‘Star Trek,’ ” Berman said. “The familiarity of the show has always been a key element. It deals with a family of people in a future that’s much better than the present.”

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At the height of the program’s popularity, however, the future of “The Next Generation” is not entirely secure. The actors originally signed five-season contracts, and early in the series’ run added a sixth. With Paramount intending to keep “The Next Generation” going, negotiations for new pacts are now under way.

“I think that there is a possibility that there could be an actor or two who might choose not to come back,” Berman said. “That would be unfortunate in that we’re a family and it would be like losing somebody in your family. On the other hand, I don’t think losing an actor would be catastrophic to the show. Gene Roddenberry always said the Enterprise is the star of the show.”

Berman and Piller, meanwhile, are working overtime on “The Next Generation” and a spinoff, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” a syndicated series that will premiere in January. The new, darker series follows a fresh cast of Starfleet officers who take command of a remote alien space station in the 24th Century, the same time period as “The Next Generation.”


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