Popular US TV series

"...lifeguards in action, beauties and blue skies..." - Greg Bonnan
"...flimsy non-stop T&A..." - anonymous critic

Baywatch seems to be one of those shows which no-one owns up to watching¹, and yet everyone knows something about. Someone is telling fibs, because it has very high ratings in all the countries in which it is shown.

The Baywatch concept goes back to 1980, when Greg Bonnan, a veteran lifeguard in Los Angeles County, had an idea for a TV show containing "sand, surf and sea rescues". The idea began to take shape when his brother-in-law, Doug Schwartz and Michael Berk began to take an interest, and managed to persuade Grant Tinker to turn the concept into a reality.

Grant's production company made the pilot Baywatch:Panic at Malibu Pier, which was sold to NBC, who showed the two-hour film on April 23 1989. It was hailed as an immediate success, rating number six in the top ten TV programs of the week. NBC picked up the tab for the first series of weekly episodes, beginning in the September. With the emphasis on action rather than character development, it might be fair to state that the cast were perfect. David Hasselhoff, all hair and teeth, Parker Stevenson with chiseled jaw and blue eyes, Shawn Weatherly, Erika Eleniak, Billy Warlock, Peter Phelps and Brandon Call supporting.

Despite good viewer figures, NBC were worried that the show would flop once the initial excitement was over, and the critics did what critics do, taking predictable pot-shots at it. When viewer numbers began to drop, NBC became twitchier. By the middle of the first season Shawn Weatherly had decided to leave and was dramatically written out, being eaten by a shark. Suddenly, Baywatch became beautiful people doing heroic things, and the audience returned.

Despite the success, however, there were still grumblings. The network and the production team were frequently at odds over the format, the arguments concerning whether the show should be about the action or the people. Action won, along with breasts and bums, and the die was cast.

The Show Must Go On

The first season ended. NBC dropped the show. The production company went under. Lifesaving measures were needed.

Budget-cutting came to the rescue. The production team still felt there was life in the format, and offered CPR in the form of a changed formula. Instead of shooting everything and using only a small proportion of it, they cut the stories, cut the action and cut the scripts. Shooting time was halved, and everything that was shot was used. Fourteen months later, they had a new product, with new cast members, and in 1991, it began to air again.

This time around, there was something for everyone. Yes, there was action, yes, there were relationships, both romantic and familial. Unfortunately, from the standpoint of the artistic purists, yes, there were also the beach shots. The show was pilloried, as it had become about beautiful people looking good in slo-mo,wearing ridiculously tight bathing costumes. Pamela Anderson, Nicole Eggert and Susan Anton came in, as did Kelly Slater, a real-life surf champion, to preserve the continuity of conventional beauty.

Schwartz did try very hard to make the show "real", injecting plot lines surrounding social issues, including AIDS, bulimia and Down's Syndrome, but the real focus was elsewhere. According to Schwartz, romance was favoured over sex.

"We've had sexy scenes but we've never had sex. In fact...we could have done an R-rated version of Baywatch for direct to video called 'Forbidden Paradise'. What the people behind the video really wanted was to have Pamela appear nude. We did release 'Forbidden Paradise' on video but only with a PG rating. We were not about to betray the family audience we had worked so hard to get."

Despite his efforts, it is likely that Baywatch will only be remembered for its bottoms and boobs. In slo-mo.

In addition to the TV series, now syndicated all over the world, there were many spin-offs and imitators. It was almost inevitable. The "specials" and straight-to-video films are given below:

¹My memories of three episodes, under duress

I knew the (second, I believe) story editor for Baywatch, and the self-deprecating story I remember hearing directly from him some years ago is consistent with the previously given history, but not the same. I hope my memory can do him justice.

My acquaintance claimed to have personally pushed the series toward all the flesh and slow-motion that television would allow, looking for higher ratings and appealing to adults. Probably he had some help and support in this crusade, since story editors aren't all powerful. Unfortunately, after a while the ratings kept dropping. And dropping. Finally when there seemed little hope left of saving the series, David Hasselhoff pulled rank and in effect took over editorial control of the show with a threat to leave which would certainly have ended the series, and my acquaintance departed the post of story editor, taking his sex sells philosophy with him.

Hasselhoff turned the series into one for children and young adults, in which the bathing suits were much more modest and the sex understated - but the women were just as beautiful, their breasts didn't shrink, and the suits were still tight because bathing suits are all tight; and y'know, what with all those emergencies, there was still a whole lot of running around involved. Hey, people run in emergencies. Can't be helped.

The genius of this move, said the story editor (who as you'll remember left because he was sure it wouldn't work), was that the show now appealed to two audiences: kids, and dads. Dads could now sit down and watch with their kids, doing the family thing and still getting an eyeful - and mom wouldn't just let him watch now, she'd be thrilled that he was sharing a moment with the young'uns - albeit for slightly different reasons. A year earlier the very most dad would have gotten for his devotion to Baywatch from his beloved was dirty looks. Now he got a pleased smile for being such a good family man.

The lesson? Sex sells when you're alone, but hypocrisy never goes out of style – and it sells all the time, and to the whole family.

Once it had been remade as the sexiest kid show ever filmed, Baywatch's ratings climbed steadily up into the stratosphere, and no-one questioned its babeography because Baywatch now seemed exceptionally modest compared to its old self. Everyone who had survived the purges lived happily ever after, as did dads everywhere. Even so, Baywatch will always be remembered for its time of scanty suits and fleshy slo-mo in the collective consciousness, rather than its later, and so much more successful, seasons. (And they say one person can't change the whole world.)

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