Shore thing: the cast of Baywatch

Question: This may be a little dry for your tastes, but why did Baywatch's producers go from NBC to syndication?


Answer: The simple answer, Miguel: They had no choice; they got canceled after their first season, which kicked off in September 1989. But after Baywatch star David Hasselhoff and three of the show's original producers decided to cut the per-episode production budget from $1.3 million to $850,000 and venture out into the first-run syndication waters, they discovered the network had done them a huge favor. Despite Hollywood insiders' expectations that the series would sink, it became the third-highest original drama in syndication, behind only Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, by 1994. Not only that, but it was consistently among the top-rated shows in Australia, France, Germany, England, Ireland and New Zealand. More than 1 billion people in 142 countries watched each week, and Baywatch didn't save its last swimmer until September 2001.

Why? Pamela Anderson, who left a gig as Debbie the "Tool Time" girl on Home Improvement to ride Baywatch's wave to stardom, thought she knew why. "I think there is this mystery about California that everybody in the world is sort of drawn to," the native Canadian told TV Guide in 1994. "One of my ambitions was always just to get to California and see a palm tree. That was, like, a really big thing for me. So I can understand people living in a colder climate who tune in and think, 'Wow! It's hot there all the time!' [Editor's note: No, it's not.] I think Baywatch gives people a great escape."

TV Guide's reviewers were more blunt in their assessments. "I'm not surprised that the beach is the setting for a new television series, only surprised that it took so long," wrote Robert MacKenzie shortly after the show's debut. "Baywatch has what producers of other series stay up late searching for: beautiful young people with hardly any clothes on. The sturdy studs and gorgeous girls in this hour adventure are quite sensibly dressed in briefs and bikinis for their roles as lifeguards and sun worshipers. Like the beach itself, the show is eye-appealing, brain-numbing and leaves one feeling vacant and pacified."

"Of course, sex is what Baywatch is all about: Watch all the bouncing bods on the beach," Jeff Jarvis observed six years later. "They are lifeguards, which is just their excuse for wearing suffocatingly tight bathing suits and unhealthy, though flattering, mahogany tans."

Pretty much on the money, which may explain why the show's stars expended so much energy worrying about how they looked in those suits. "Even if they are perfect, they think they are fat," said writer Deborah Schwartz, whose husband was an executive producer, said in 1998. "My husband's pet peeve is when they come out in their Baywatch jackets and say, 'I can't take it off. I'm a cow.' Then they take it off, and he says, 'Cows have changed.'"

For Hasselhoff, how he looked in his trunks wasn't nearly as important as the fact that the show revived a career written off after Knight Rider ended in 1986. In the late '80s, nobody would hire him, even when casting agents were looking for a "David Hasselhoff type." He was seen as too old. So he went in another direction and launched a music career that went nowhere in the U.S., but took off overseas. Performing live with K.I.T.T. the Knight Rider car sharing the stage with him as a prop, Hasselhoff toured internationally and sold out 17 concerts in a few weeks. By 1988, when he came back to America to costar with Raymond Burr in a Perry Mason movie, he was considered the Michael Bolton of Europe.

Yet the actor had been around the block too many times to take himself or his show too seriously. With the series referred to as Buttwatch, Babewatch and Bunwatch, plenty of people got a laugh at the expense of Hasselhoff and crew. He didn't mind, though; he was too busy getting rich. "There've been so many Baywatch jokes," he said. "But it's literally the jokes — and the people who make them — that have made us famous."