When Margaret Loesch, head of the Fox Children's Network, went shopping for some "silly, loopy" counterprogramming to the usual TV 'toon fests, she made a choice that left Fox affiliates, management and even her own staff scratching their heads.
"They basically thought I had finally lost it," she said.
So nervous were some that days before the show was set to air toward the end of summer, Loesch was being asked about her plans for damage control.
The reason? Loesch's offbeat choice was Saban Entertainment's "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," a live-action superhero series that bears a distinct kinship to old, low-tech "Godzilla" movies: Cheesy alien costumes, mismatched lip movements and dialogue, and clumsy battles between the monster army of Rita Repulsa, Empress of Evil, and dinosaur robots controlled by the Power Rangers, who are teen-age karate experts in crayon-colored space suits.
The show was an instant smash, surpassing even the delighted Loesch's expectations.
The half-hour series is wiping out its competition in the ratings among viewers aged 2 to 11. In a peak Oct. 30 performance, following Saban's "X-Men," another Fox hit, the show reached 4.3 million children--"the highest rating in that demographic," according to a Fox spokeswoman, since CBS' blockbuster "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" reached the same figure in 1991.
In Los Angeles, where "Power Rangers" has been airing weekdays at 3 p.m. (plus Saturdays at 11:30 a.m.) on KTTV-TV Channel 11, it has frequently topped top-gun Oprah Winfrey.
For adults still shaking their heads over Barney's appeal, the burning question is, why?
To Loesch, the answer is simple. "As a child I loved the old 'Godzilla' movies. I couldn't get enough of them. It didn't matter if I could see the wires and the seams in the costumes and the lips moving when the words didn't--they were so fanciful and imaginative."
So when Haim Saban, chairman of Saban Entertainment, screened a short presentation of the series for her one day, Loesch was immediately sold.
"Eight years I've been kicking this idea around," Saban said, "shooting pilots, re-shooting pilots and going from one network to the other and frankly being laughed at, until Margaret looked at it and said, 'That could be a monster hit.' "
The show, a co-production between Saban and the Japanese Toei Co., gets much of its deliberately campy quality from old film footage. Loesch said that new monster footage with the same look is being shot in Japan to accommodate future episodes, but at present, scenes featuring Rita Repulsa, the monsters and the helmeted Power Rangers with their robotic dinosaurs come from a years-old Japanese show. That explains the dubbing.
New special effects and new live-action scenes showing the Rangers without their helmets are then shot around the existing footage, tailored to each country.
"They shoot Japanese actors and we shoot American actors," Saban said, "so it's a very innovative way of being able to produce an extremely expensive show."
Not everyone's impressed. Casey Graves, 10, of Los Angeles, said that although he has a friend who's "a maniac" for the show, he thinks it's "a little fake. I understand that it can give you, like, your dream world, but I just don't like it."
On the other hand, Kimberly Weigel, 10, of Anaheim, approves "because it's not cartoons." She likes the female Power Rangers and thinks the fight scenes "are sort of cool."
An effort has been "to avoid racial and sexual stereotyping," Loesch noted. "For a change, female characters are as vital as the males. They're superheroes, and little girls don't have that too often."
Chasen Conaway, 10, of Glendale, said: "I love the way the aliens are made and the way they look like they come out of a comic book, and when all the 'zords (dinosaur robots) form Megazord and they destroy the monster and he falls back and explodes."
His brother, Christopher, 8, likes "the way the boys of the school always get into trouble and the Rangers rescue them. The bad guys are fun."
Both brothers are eager to own "Power Rangers" merchandise, and that's good news for the 40 licensees that are in place so far for everything from a toy line to video games. The sudden demand, however, was apparently unexpected. At least one national toy chain is scrambling for action figures and dinosaur robots from Japanese toy licensee Bandai.
Christine Conaway, who "can't understand the attraction" but tapes the show for her sons, said that she has been calling a local Toys R Us, hoping to catch its next shipment. A "Dragonzord" she bought for a child's birthday "was the hit of the party. The kids were drooling over it."
"We practically sell (the toys) out of the boxes," affirmed Rebekah Richardson, a manager at the Toys R Us store in Burbank. According to Randy Irwin, the chain's area director, "It's the same nationwide. As soon as we get 'em in, they're sold out."
It seems ironic that at a time when Congress has mandated more educational programming on television, children are going wild for a show filled with fight scenes and exploding monsters.
"It's true this is an action-adventure show," Loesch said, "and these kids are karate experts, but we try to get across that this show is a fantasy and in real life you've got to solve your problems with means other than fisticuffs."
"We're talking comedy with action interspersed throughout," Saban said. "You also have very strong role models. It is just 25 minutes of pure fun that we utilize as a vehicle to put through extremely positive messages.
"The kids don't turn on the TV to be educated, they turn the TV on to be entertained. We need to make sure the entertainment is responsible."
"We've really tried to deal with important issues," Loesch said. "Channeling anger, conflict resolution, teamwork. We're trying even more in future scripts."
Meanwhile, she's gratified that kids "get it," and that her instincts were on target. "I thought it would be a success. I didn't think it would be a phenomenon."