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Could Classic 'Hill Street Blues' Series Survive Today's TV Scene? James B. Sikking Reflects
In its heyday, there was no more powerful show on television than "Hill Street Blues." But could the series that took us into the personal lives of cops survive in today's TV world? The multiple Emmy-winning, envelope-pushing, career-launching drama is a touchstone of the '80s for many viewers — but early on in its life it held the distinction of being the lowest-rated show ever to be renewed.
We'll soon be able to gauge this century's consumer appetite for "Hill Street." All 144 episodes of the drama run are being released in a 34-DVD box set complete with commemorative booklet and other goodies by Shout! Factory on April 29.
"When the ratings came out, we were devastated, absolutely devastated, because we thought we had a hell of a show," recalls James B. Sikking — aka gonzo SWAT team leader Lt. Howard Hunter. "When we got this terrible rating, like 89th place out of 100, we thought, 'Wow. Call the agent. We've got to go somewhere else to work.'"
What made the challenge all the tougher was that in its first season, "Hill Street" was moved from one timeslot to another, to another. "We were on every night except Sunday," says Sikking. "We were getting mail saying, 'Just let us know where it's going to be on. We'd like to see it.'"
With all that in mind, it's no wonder that the series team was surprised when they received word of its renewal. "I kept saying, 'How come they picked us up?'" Sikking says, "and hearing this word, 'demographics.'"
Statistics showed that the people who were watching "Hill Street Blues" were an affluent, well-educated crowd who in large part had left off watching television except for sports events. They were, Sikking says, what was "quite frequently called 'the Esquire demographic.' It was a demographic of people who read the New Yorker, who liked content.
"Hill Street" climbed to No. 1 and helped NBC build one of its strongest schedules.
As for whether it could survive in today's vastly different landscape, Sikking says, "It's hard to say. 'Breaking Bad' did well — it was a good show. But it was such a different world 34 years ago, with only three networks."
Sikking, who was friends with "Hill Street" creator Steven Bochco for more than a decade before signing on to the show, says he and Bochco still get together. (In fact, Sikking went on to play father to Neil Patrick Harris' precocious doctor in Bochco's "Doogie Howser, M.D." series and he was among the stars of Bochco's "Brooklyn South.") They're both promoting the box set although "there's no financial advantage for either of us in this anymore. I'm proud of it; it's a good show, and those seven years were a joyous time in my life," he says.
The actor stays in touch with several of the other "Hill Streeters" as well.
But his main focus now is his four grandchildren. At 80, with a long and satisfying portfolio of dozens of films and TV shows, Sikking and wife Florine are enjoying their offspring's offspring. He says, "We just came back from taking our 9-year-old granddaughter to Washington, D.C., to help her understand what America is — the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the archives. Then we saw how the government works. We went to the House of Representatives. We saw the Lincoln Memorial. It seems to me that somewhere in the educational process we guarantee that a citizen child of America goes to spend three days, five days, a week, in Washington, D.C."
Somewhere, Howard Hunter is smiling.
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