America's most pervasive cultural export is a television show that was canceled after one season on NBC, has never earned an award or even any critical respect for dramatic excellence and is often derisively called "Babewatch."
But facts are facts. "Baywatch," which is about the adventures of lifeguards on a California beach but is really mostly about swimwear and suntan lotion, has a wider audience on the planet Earth than any other entertainment show in history.
As one of its financial backers put it, "Over a 30-day period it certainly reaches almost every person in the world who watches television."
Though some may debate what this says about the international perspective on American culture, apparently nothing can match the magnetic pull of wet California girls -- and guys -- on a beach.
Even Japan imports "Baywatch," without the threat of tariffs. The show is seen in China, and in all the Asian countries reached by Star TV, Rupert Murdoch's satellite delivery system. For five years it has been one of the most popular shows in Britain. People even watch in Iran, behind the backs of the mullahs.
"I would say it is seen in 144 countries," said Paul Talbot, president of the Fremantle Corp., which sells the international rights to the series. But, he said, "We don't really sell the show by country anymore. Now we sell it by language."
"Baywatch" is now translated into 15 languages, he said.
Mr. Talbot added that "Baywatch" had been able to eclipse "Dallas" as the most-watched show ever because of the spread of satellite dishes.
"Once a show is on satellite it's like the rain," Mr. Talbot said. "It falls on the rich and the poor alike -- and both watch 'Baywatch.' "
The show has helped to make cast members like Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff into cult stars around the world.
In fact, "Baywatch" has become such an international phenomenon that its domestic success has often been overshadowed. After thriving for five years in weekly syndication, with 110 episodes to cull from, "Baywatch" has now moved into the even more lucrative business of syndicating reruns.
In addition, the series has been sold to the USA cable network, which will begin showing reruns in 1997. And new episodes will continue to run once a week on weekend nights for another two years.
Then there's a spinoff, "Baywatch Nights," also starring Mr. Hasselhoff, which begins its own syndicated run this fall.
"It's what you call a franchise," Mr. Talbot said.
Mr. Talbot and other executives associated with the series declined to put a figure on how profitable "Baywatch" has been. "It's like 'Forrest Gump,' " Mr. Talbot said. "It's still losing money, as far as Hollywood bookkeeping goes."
He acknowledged, however, that the show had surely made several hundred million dollars in revenue and that considering the new syndication runs and the continuing interest by international broadcasters, the best was likely yet to come.
All of this from a show that could not make it into a second season on network television.
"Baywatch" appeared on NBC's prime-time schedule in the fall of 1989. After receiving lackluster ratings and taking a critical pounding for its cheesecake visuals and contrived story lines (the lifeguards have gotten involved in everything from police activity to, in one memorable episode, open-heart surgery performed with a penknife), the show was canceled the next spring.
NBC, which in an earlier era canceled one of the greatest entertainment franchises of all time -- "Star Trek" -- made another mistake on this one. "Baywatch" had already made a dent internationally, with about 30 countries signing on to buy the series. They wanted more.
The company that originally produced the series, GTG Productions, headed by Grant Tinker, a former NBC chairman, was about to fold. The producers of "Baywatch," which include Mr. Hasselhoff and Greg Bonann, believed that given the heavy international interest they could make it go. In 1990, they made a deal with the Gannett Co., parent company of GTG.
The show's production budget was pared down for syndication. The NBC version had cost well above $1 million an episode. The syndicated version cost about $800,000 an episode, Mr. Talbot said.
"Baywatch" was a modest hit in domestic syndication within a year, but that was almost beside the point: By then it had #F become a runaway hit almost everywhere else in the world.
Though the show's unrivaled success has left some industry analysts mystified, Mr. Talbot said the explanation was simple, and yes, it has a lot to do with California, beaches and bathing attire.
"Have you ever been to Glasgow in February?" he asked. "If you have, then you know why this show's a hit. After a soupy day with three hours of a sort of sunlight, you look forward to coming home at 6:30 and watching what? The BBC has gardening on. So you look out at the soupy fog and you see 'Baywatch' is coming up and you decide: That's what I'll watch!"
He added: "The lifestyle you see on the show may not exist in reality but it exists in people's minds all over the world. People in the remotest parts of the world think they know about Hollywood and the beach. It's an image they grew up with."