Focus : Spelling Check : MEGA-PRODUCER'S LATEST VENTURE IS HIS OWN 'NETWORK'

Beth Kleid is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

What, he worries?

He's launched some of television's highest profile series--"Beverly Hills, 90210," "Melrose Place," "Dynasty," "Family," "Love Boat," "Fantasy Island," "Charlie's Angels," "Mod Squad." And, OK, a clunker or two--"Nightingales," "Winnetka Road," "HeartBeat"; the jury is still out on "Models Inc."

But, heaven help him, Aaron Spelling says he's nervous.

"I must be honest, I feel much more pressure than ever," says the 66-year-old TV producer of his latest venture. The butterflies this time around come from launching what's being touted as a new "network." His network. The Spelling Premiere Network. He hopes it will draw women in the syndication market a la the successful testosterone targeting by Warner Bros.' Prime Time Network ("Kung Fu," "Babylon 5") and Paramount ("Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Deep Space Nine," "The Untouchables").

"There really is nothing for (women) to watch in syndication," Spelling says, pointing to such male-oriented shows as "The Untouchables," "Cobra" and "Renegade."

From that counterprogramming premise, the Spelling Premiere Network was born and, he says, a good case of insomnia. "We're totally responsible for the cost of the shows," he explains. And with a 22-episode order for each series at about $1 million per show in production costs, "It's a $44-million gamble."

"Heaven Help Us," one of the two new Spelling network series that premiered last week, features an angelic newlywed couple who really become angelic when their plane crashes during their honeymoon. And helping these two angels-in-training earn their wings is a Super Angel, played by Ricardo Montalban.

The second show, "Robin's Hoods," is "more down to Earth," Spelling jokes. It revolves around a group of parolees who work in a hip nightclub and solve cases. While they're not angels, these young Spelling-esque lovelies look out of this world.

Sales of the series to 107 stations by Worldvision, Spelling's distribution arm, doesn't allay Spelling's anxiety. "The sale was based on previous shows we had done," he acknowledges, shows that have done well attracting women in the coveted 18-34 age range.

But has Spelling lost his spell? His latest Fox show, "Models Inc.," has received lackluster ratings and the nickname "Models Sink."

Nevertheless, "Heaven Help Us" is going all-out for the estrogen crowd with its fantasy feel, its nod to Cary Grant and its high romance quotient. The ethereal couple, the ex-baseball star played by John Schneider and the debutante played by Melinda Clarke, are gloriously in love. And in Spelling heaven, angels, at least married angels, can have some pretty steamy scenes. "But Mr. Shepherd (Montalban) keeps popping up whenever they start having a little fun in the bedroom," says Clarke.

Spelling calls Montalban the perfect guardian angel. "He has that marvelous sternness . . . and that distinctive voice. I think it's great to have an Hispanic angel--people think angels are so white."

But Montalban's proteges on the show are not perfect angels.

Schneider, grown up since his days on "The Dukes of Hazzard," enjoys the couple's newlywed squabbles. "My wife Elly and I get along like that. We're a little sarcastic here and there."

Playfulness aside, Clarke finds her character's strength appealing. "She'll take risks. It takes a lot for her to be afraid."

Still, her appearance counts--a lot. Her hair and designer clothes are "big issues," says Clarke, who admits to being fussed over on the set in San Antonio.

"Robin's Hoods" also features a strong female lead in Linda Purl, who plays a former assistant D.A. who runs her husband's nightclub after his death. Purl's character reluctantly becomes den mother to the parolees who work in the club. They're a lovable bunch of gorgeous women: the bad check writer; the petty thief; the accomplice to robbery; the one arrested for drug possession. The man among them--played by David Gail--is surrogate big brother.

Could it be that female viewers may not share Spelling's fascination with beautiful women in short denim shorts and cowboy boots?

Purl says women will relate to the show and her character, Brett, in particular.

"Looking at my own life in my 30s, it seems that everybody goes through something. Brett's something is that her husband was killed. She's a single woman, a novice small-business owner. I think those are challenges that any woman who is (at any of those places) in their lives can relate to."

Spelling says he's a huge fan of programs that present strong women. In fact, he's been criticized for portraying weak men who serve as sex objects on his series--the himbos. "I think it's great for women to have shows with women as leads. . . I think we're giving women two shows they'll like," he says. "I hope I'm not wrong."

Only the Nielsens will tell.

"Heaven Help Us" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on KCOP ; "Robin's Hoods" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on KCOP.

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