November 29, 1982 12:00 PM

It was going to be television’s Year of the Hunk. Now that Suzanne Somers has bounced off Three’s Company into the Hollywood sunset and Charlie’s Angels have jiggled their last, a new generation of sex objects—male sex objects—stampeded onto the airwaves last September. With hairy chests, rippling biceps and macho swagger, they bare their physiques at every opportunity, frequently clad in little more than swimsuits, short-shorts—even towels. Gone are the days of lumpen everyman heroes such as Columbo and Kojak. Story lines take second place to body lines as Prime Rib takes over Prime Time.

Why is this year’s lineup so studded with studs? Model-turned-actor Tom Selleck may have kicked off the trend with his Magnum, P.I., a phenomenal ratings success that owes much to the hirsute sternum of its star. Prompted by that and Harrison Ford’s portrayal of macho adventurer Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg’s 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark, the networks and TV producers just couldn’t wait to jump onto the meat wagon. On NBC’s CHiPs, for instance, Larry Wilcox’s departure from the series allowed the show’s producers to replace him with former Montclair State College football player-turned-model Tom Reilly, 23. They have also added a World Speedway motorcycle racing champion named Bruce Penhall, 25, who has never acted before. Now Reilly, Penhall and co-star Erik Estrada seem to spend more time revving it up on the beach, at the gym and in male strip joints than on their cycles.

Fashion magazines as well as athletics have become the new hunting grounds for casting directors hungering for the ultimate beefcake. Peter Barton, 26, the extraterrestrial teenager in NBC’s The Powers of Matthew Star, was snatched up after modeling swimwear in Penthouse (“the highlight of my career,” he says facetiously). Jack Scalia, 32, Rock Hudson’s streetwise son on NBC’s The Devlin Connection, is a former supermodel and Gentlemen’s Quarterly cover boy.

Sexual exploitation of the new studs is near shameless. Publicity photos for NBC’s Knight Rider, a less-than-stirring action drama of love and loyalty between a supersleuth and his computerized Trans Am, shows the stone-faced star, former soap throb David Hasselhoff, 30, lounging erotically astride his souped-up metallic steed. Boldest of all, the pilot episode of the ABC detective series Matt Houston opened with a long camera-caress of Texan Lee Horsley’s, er, abdomen. “We like to call it a ‘buckle shot,’ ” laughs Horsley, 28, who at least evinces some humor about the new prime-time meat market. “Male sex appeal is popular now,” he observes, “because it sells.”

Or does it? As the Nielsen ratings through November indicate, the networks’ expected beefcake sizzle has fizzled. Established shows such as Selleck’s Magnum, P.I. and Lee Majors’ The Fall Guy on ABC have muscled up in the ratings, but so far all of the three networks’ 11 new action series featuring macho males have performed like 98-pound weaklings. Only Matt Houston and Tales of the Gold Monkey—ABC’s Raiders imitation starring Indiana Jones clone Stephen Collins, 35—have come close to the top half of the Nielsens. The remaining lowly lot includes Gavilan, with perennial he-man Robert Urich, 35, on NBC; Bring ‘Em Back Alive, another Raiders lookalike, starring Bruce (TRON) Boxleitner, 32, on CBS; and Voyagers!, an NBC show aimed at the kiddies with tall, blond, blue-eyed Jon-Erik Hexum, 25. CBS’ Tucker’s Witch, an ill-conceived Bewitched and Hart to Hart crossbreed with Tim Matheson, 34, and The Quest with Perry King, 34, on ABC have already been removed from the schedule. Even such a onetime macho blockbuster as CBS’ newly recast The Dukes of Hazzard has sunk far below preseason expectations.

What went wrong? Joel Thurm, vice-president for talent at NBC, agrees that there’s been a significant refocus this year on male bodies, but he blames the poor showing less on a repudiation of the trend than on the general poor quality of the shows. “After all, Tom Selleck made several pilots before Magnum, P.I.” he points out. “To be a success, you have to put the right person in the right show, and it’s got to be well produced. And most of these new shows just are not very good.” Producer Jay Bernstein, the onetime agent who promoted Farrah Fawcett to stardom and whose current hot property is Boxleitner, offers a variety of standard excuses, ranging from “poor promotion of the new shows by the networks” to “lousy time slots” to generally shrinking network TV audiences. Duke Vincent, a production executive, agrees with Bernstein but insists that the key question always is, “Does the audience want to invite the star into their living rooms week after week? The success of any show rises or falls on that one thing.”

So far the stampede of lockjawed young stallions has not been galloping through America’s living rooms. Does that signal the last roundup for prime time’s studs? No, insists NBC’s Thurm. “Except for the jiggle period, TV has always been male-oriented,” he says. “The only difference was that in the 1960s and early 1970s the body was covered up more. Now, because of the sexual revolution, women can publicly admire a man’s body.” But while the days of “buckle shots” and flexed pecs are probably far from over, TV’s current lineup of muscle men soon may find their workout hasn’t worked out. Now it’s time for the showers.

(This story was written by Josh Hammer and reported by David Wallace and Suzanne Adelson in Los Angeles.)

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