It may be the butt of endless jokes, but "Baywatch" is the world's No. 1 show. Seriously.

Baywatch (1989-2001)

David Hasselhoff has made an important decision: There will be no more derriere-baring thongs allowed on Baywatch, his sun-soaked, flesh-filled syndicated series about L.A. lifeguards. ”We had some graphic shots of 19- year-old girls in thongs walking down the beach, and I said, ‘No one’s going to be looking at my scene if this ass walks behind me!”’ Hasselhoff says while screening dailies on the VCR in his trailer at L.A.’s Will Rogers State Beach. ”I’m not even going to be looking at my scene! I’m going to be looking at the ass!”

So Hasselhoff has laid down the law to his fellow executive producers. ”I said, ‘I’m sorry, guys. If we keep doing stuff like this, I’m outta here.’ I love family entertainment—stuff that makes you cry. I’m from the Michael Landon school.”

On Hasselhoff’s TV screen, two lifeguards swim to the rescue of a drowning little boy. ”Watch this,” he says, beaming, as the child’s life is saved. ”Now that’s not T&A. That’s real.”

Reality check, please.

Whether because of its compelling story lines (as Hasselhoff believes) or because of its babes in bathing suits and hunks in trunks (as almost everyone else believes), one thing is certain: Baywatch is a big hit. The third- highest-rated syndicated drama in the U.S. (trailing only the two Star Trek spin-offs), the show, which seems like a relic from the Charlie’s Angels-Love Boat era, is even more popular beyond America’s shores. A few facts:

* It’s among the top-rated U.S. shows in the U.K., France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia.

* As of this month, with Rupert Murdoch’s Asia satellite broadcast network, Star TV, carrying it, Baywatch will begin to reach 72 countries-including Outer Mongolia and Lebanon.

* The show’s producers estimate that 1 billion people will watch it every week, more than have ever viewed any television series since time began.

And Ross Perot is worried about declining American exports?

The series is doing big things for its stars: It has already launched the movie career of Erika Eleniak, who left after the second season to costar with Steven Seagal in last year’s Under Siege and will soon be seen as Elly May in The Beverly Hillbillies. Pamela Anderson, Eleniak’s pneumatic replacement (and fellow Playboy Playmate), recently left her recurring role on ABC’s smash sitcom Home Improvement to concentrate on her Baywatch duties. ”Everybody was saying, ‘How can you leave a No. 1 show?”’ Anderson says. ”I said, ‘Baywatch is a No. 1 show—just not here.”’

And it has made Hasselhoff, who plays a senior lifeguard and owns a piece of the series, a rich man. ”I think I’m the highest-paid actor in syndication,” he says. ”I’m not boasting about it. I’m just happy.”

Not bad for a show that was thought to be dead when NBC canceled it in 1990 after a single season of middling ratings. Original star Hasselhoff helped ! revive the series in syndication a year later, signing on as an executive producer and helping to slash the budget from $1.4 million per episode to about $750,000. The secrets to the cost cutting: limited locations (the beach, the lifeguard headquarters), a smaller crew, fewer takes (”We don’t get a second chance,” Anderson says), and shorter scripts.

Hasselhoff claims this last money-saving maneuver is the reason the show earned the nicknames Babewatch and Buttwatch.

”We’d run out of script, so we’d shoot a montage and come back with lingering shots of the cast members’ anatomy,” Hasselhoff says. ”The press picked up on that, but the people who watch the show never say anything about it. The guys will say, ‘Hey, nice babes!’ But that’s just the guys.”

The female cast members don’t seem to be bothered by the nicknames either. ”We all call it Babewatch,” says Alexandra Paul, who plays Hasselhoff’s boss and ex-lover on the show. ”Maybe it’s because most TV shows don’t have enough women. Here we have more good parts for women.” (No pun intended.) And Anderson sniffs, ”We don’t care what people call it, as long as they watch.”

But Hasselhoff can’t fathom his show’s beef- and cheesecake reputation. ”I’m constantly trying to get more heartrending stories,” he says. ”I want this show to appeal to a wide range of people—a grandfather can watch it with his grandson.”

This season the series threatens to set new records for most hugs per episode by tackling such Landonesque topics as terminally ill children (Hasselhoff’s TV son, Hobie, played by Jeremy Jackson, falls in love with a dying girl), the Special Olympics (in a Very Special Episode guest-starring lilliputian gymnast Mary Lou Retton), and bulimia (Nicole Eggert’s character, lifeguard Summer Quinn, suffers from it—”It was disgusting,” she says. ”I was, like, gagging and spitting up”).

The last subject has special resonance for Paul, a recovering bulimic who thinks that Baywatch‘s Barbie-doll women might adversely affect female viewers’ images of their own bodies, yet she didn’t hesitate to sign on with the show. ”I’m the biggest hypocrite you’ll ever meet,” she says. But Paul, who also joined the cast upon Eleniak’s departure, proudly reports that the women of Baywatch aren’t all uniform anymore. ”I’m the first brunet female regular on the show,” she says. ”And the first with small breasts.”

Baywatch (1989-2001)
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