Back in the early 1990s, following the success of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," first-run syndication became a popular non-network platform for studio-produced product. (Syndicated shows are produced by a Hollywood studio and sold directly to stations -- or station groups -- rather than being sold to a network.)
"ST:NG" begat "War of the Worlds," "Babylon 5," "Friday the 13th: The Series," "Hercules," "Xena: Warrior Princess," "Andromeda" and "Mutant X."
As the 1990s faded, so did first-run syndicated dramas, both because of the rise of The WB and UPN on formerly independent stations and in part due to so many basic cable networks launching original scripted series.
ABC Studios seeks to turn back time by bringing a new first-run syndicated drama to market this weekend: "Legend of the Seeker" (5 p.m. Saturday, WPCW; repeats at 11:30 p.m. Saturday). This fantasy drama, based on the Terry Goodkind book series, premieres with a two-hour episode that introduces viewers to a time and place that will be familiar to any fan of the "Lord of the Rings" movies, which, like "Legend," were filmed in New Zealand.
In the opening scene, feisty Kahlan Amnell (Bridget Regan) is on horseback, pursued by men shooting arrows at her, when she breaks through a force field-like "boundary." The bad guys eventually catch up to her and declare her a witch, but she's more interested in finding "the Seeker" than she is in casting spells.
The Seeker turns out to be Richard Cypher (Craig Horner), a woodsman who learns from the wise wizard Zedd (Bruce Spence) that he is "a hero who arises in a time of trouble and suffering and seeks out evil and fights it wherever he can."
Zedd also lays down the wizard's first rule: "People will believe a lie because they want it to be true or because they're afraid it might be true." Hmmm, sounds like some politicians' first rule this election cycle.
In the premiere, viewers learn Kahlan is a Confessor, charged with protecting the Seeker. With Zedd they attempt to prevent the tyrannical Darken Rahl (Craig Parker) from unleashing an ancient evil.
"Legend of the Seeker" may thrill some "LOTR" fans, but the content of the pilot is nothing original. Parents who think this fantasy series may be fine family fare should be warned: Some of the fight scenes are more violent than expected -- one match ends in a beheading.
"Legend of the Seeker" comes from executive producers Sam Raimi (the "Spider-Man" films) and Rob Tapert, who previously created "Hercules" and "Xena." "Legend" ditches the camp factor that was a hallmark of those shows, particularly "Xena."
"We've gone out of our way, working with the directors and writer Ken Biller, to take that '90s, post-modern aspect out of the show," Tapert said in a teleconference last week. "It's been a very deliberate attempt to play this as real and urgent. ... We're trying to be as honest as we can to the book that Terry Goodkind wrote."
Not that the series will be 100 percent faithful.
"We've had to, in the world of television, create events that were not portrayed in the book but still remain true to the characters, the theme and what's happening within the over-arching story within the book," Tapert said. He added that the TV series may not move through all the events of the first of the 12 books in Goodkind's series in its initial season.
Whether or not "Legend" gets additional seasons will depend on viewers' willingness to seek out a show that's scheduled by individual stations at different times.
After a few years without first-run syndicated dramas, "There's a real question mark. Is that a viable world?" Tapert said. "We'll tell you at the end of November after our first five or six episodes. But I believe it wasn't the audience that went away. I believe that eventually there was a flood of subpar product and the audience wised up to that and moved on looking for something else."
A graphic with this column shows a snapshot of the local news ratings race for October. It's probably too soon to determine if anchor lineup changes on WTAE and WPXI have had much impact. We'll take a more specific look at the competitive landscape following November sweeps, which began yesterday.