Originally created 06/30/03

'Golden Girls' are a TV hit the second time around



NEW YORK -- Four wisecracking women who love to talk about sex star in one of television's hottest shows - but it's not what you're thinking.

Forget "Sex and the City." The Lifetime network has a hit on its hands with "The Golden Girls."

The show airs seven times each weekday on the cable network, and this month's retrospective, "The Golden Girls: Their Greatest Memories," was the highest-rated special in Lifetime's 19-year history. The show with four gray-haired ladies is an unexpected hit among young women.

"I think it's amazing," said actress Betty White, who starred as the naive Rose Nylund in the series, which aired on NBC from 1985 to 1992. Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty co-starred.

When she's out now, White said, she's recognized more for her role in "The Golden Girls" than for the beloved "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," where she played WJM-TV's happy homemaker.

"The Golden Girls" is the most popular sitcom rerun on cable television after "Seinfeld" and "Friends." It's even watched more now than "The Cosby Show," considered the quintessential 1980s sitcom.

"It's going to be rerun 50 years from now, I guarantee you," said Tim Brooks, Lifetime's research director and a television historian. "It's a show that isn't specific to its time and is very much about people."

Lifetime began airing "The Golden Girls" in 1997 and it was popular from the start, although attention from the reunion has given it a boost lately. Lifetime estimates some 13 million people per week watch it.

Besides the seven weekday airings, Lifetime shows it twice on Saturday. On Sundays, the ladies rest.

Lifetime was somewhat surprised to find its 11 p.m. ET airing is watched by as many women aged 18 to 34 as are watching MTV at that hour, Brooks said. More than a quarter of the mail Lifetime gets about the series is from college students, he said.

That's probably because the characters on the show had an attitude toward life that was very young, Brooks said.

"They didn't care about what people thought," he said. "They were sexually active and were not afraid to talk about it. They may have been mature women, but they were 20-year-olds in 50-year-old bodies."

While the characters were saucy, they usually weren't mean, he said.

White said the show's longevity is a tribute to its fine writers. And the characters may provide something of a surrogate family to viewers, she said.

"A lot of households now don't have grandmothers," she said. "I think they get a kick out of the fact that we're still viable."

White still sees McClanahan and Arthur or chats with them regularly. Getty, unfortunately, was unable to participate in the reunion special.

True to "The Golden Girls" spirit, the veteran actress scoffs at the idea of retiring.

"They'll have to carry me out feet first," White said. "That's when I'll retire."