Old Warriors Never Die

If Johnny Ferraro, the original series creator and executive producer of American Gladiators, were a contestant on his own show, his name would have to be Phoenix.

Ferraro came up with the Gladiators concept in 1982, when he produced a show for charity in Erie, Pa., that featured burly men competing in off-beat games. Ferraro decided to turn it into a TV show, although it took Hollywood seven years to get on board.

In 1989, Ferraro finally convinced producer Ron Ziskin and Samuel Goldwyn Studios—now MGM—to produce the show. American Gladiators, the syndicated series, was a knockout. The show ran for eight years, going off the air in 1997, although those original episodes still run today on ESPN Classic.

Most producers let a concept go once it completes its run. Not Ferraro. “The day it went off is the day I started again,” he says.

Now American Gladiators is back in a big way. NBC had success in January and February with an updated version of the show, hosted by Laila Ali and Hulk Hogan. NBC's American Gladiators averaged a 4.3 rating/11 share among adults 18-49 and 10 million viewers. NBC was happy enough with the revitalized version that it's bringing it back to Monday nights where 14 episodes will air from 8 to 9:30 pm, starting with a two-hour premiere on May 12.

“I don't know of another time that a syndicated vehicle has been brought back to television and then aired on a network,” says John Bryan, MGM's executive VP of broadcast strategy.

But the show also is coming back to syndication.

In 1994, MGM and Ferraro introduced Gladiators 2000, a version targeted at teens that was hosted by a young Ryan Seacrest, now the well-known host of Fox's American Idol and E! News as well as a producer and radio personality. Gladiators 2000 qualified as educational and informational (stations must provide three hours of E/I children's programming a week) because kids had to complete both mental and physical challenges to win the competitions. MGM produced 39 episodes of Gladiators 2000, which ran for one year in syndication.

At this year's NATPE, MGM brought Gladiators 2000 back out, and it's now cleared in two-year deals in more than 50% of the U.S., with Cox-owned KTVU San Francisco and Tribune-owned KCPQ Seattle and 163 more markets picking it up for weekend runs. MGM is in the midst of negotiations with stations in the top three markets. There aren't more episodes; the original 39 just get repeated.

If all goes well, MGM may go back into production on the show, he says. “There is a hunger out there for this kind of stuff,” Bryan says. “It's hard to find entertaining programs aimed at teens.”

Meanwhile, MGM, NBC and Ferraro are planning to expand American Gladiators far past the television screen.

“This is a great syndicated show from the '90s that was just sitting in our library, but now, looked at differently, it's creating all these new business for us,” says Jim Packer, co-president, MGM Worldwide Television. “When you revitalize something, you think about all of its possible platforms. So we're not just thinking about broadcast and syndication, but mobile television, broadband and games.”

While MGM does expect to take NBC's new version of American Gladiators into syndication for a possible fall 2010 launch, it's also considering an animated version aimed at kids, a live tour, mobile games and console games.

On Jan. 30, MGM also launched a new American Gladiator Website to accompany the show at www.americangladiators.com. The site, an homage to both the old and the new program, will be beefed up in May to include many more clips and it may stream episodes. Viewers already can watch streamed episodes of American Gladiators on NBC.com and Hulu.com.

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.