Call her the cupid of counterprogramming. In the event of a major sports broadcast, count on romance novelist Danielle Steel to shoot down the jocks' ratings. Last fall, NBC's programming maestro Brandon Tartikoff, in an obvious ploy to attract female viewers fed up with having sports nuts as significant others, put two Steel adaptations (Kaleidoscope and Fine Things) up against Monday Night Football and the first game of the World Series. In besting the NFL and finishing a close second to the Series, they scored a combined audience of 52 million viewers and were among the year's top five TV movies. Her latest on-air conquest: the April 1 NCAA basketball championship. NBC's version of Steel's 1983 best-seller, Changes, came closer than Kansas did (within two Nielsen rating points) to outplaying the Duke Blue Devils on CBS.
Ready to take on tennis, golf, tractor pulls anything the competition's got Steel, 43, sits at home in San Francisco, busily pecking out her latest work on a 1948 Olympia typewriter. It is just such diligence that has earned her a 381-week stay (and a place in the Guinness Book of World Records) atop the New York Times best-seller list, an annual income estimated at $25 million, and, not coincidentally, a fan in Tartikoff. He's just bought two more Steel books, Palomino and Daddy. (Watch out, Super Bowl.)
Even with her popular, forest-razing works (more than 150 million copies of 27 best-sellers in print) moving successfully from page to TV, Steel claims no magic formula. Her simple recipe: ''The characters are very real. The stories are believable they touch the heart.'' And though she doesn't watch much on the tube herself, Steel says she's happy with the NBC movies. ''I'm not one of those writers who's uptight about my words being put on the screen 'Oh, my God, they cut this scene or they changed that.'''
The creator of some of today's most glamorous protagonists insists her own image is quite different. In the middle of packing for a move, Steel says, ''I'm filthy dirty from moving boxes, I'm wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, and my hair is sticking straight out of my head in a ponytail. The reality is, I've got my sleeves rolled up and my nose to the grindstone most of the time.'' To turn out a new novel every nine months, Steel puts in 20-hour days, devoted first to her children (she has nine, including two stepkids six under age 12) and then, from 7:30 p.m. to 3 a.m., to her writing. ''They've had me all day, so by then, I figure it's my time,'' she says. ''Still, I leave my typewriter, pucker up, and go kiss everybody good night.''
Steel's own life would make for a great page-turner. The only child of divorced parents, she was married at 17 and divorced twice before meeting her current husband, shipping consultant John Traina. An autobiography is not in the works, but if it were, what actress would she like to portray her? ''Probably Sally Field. She's small and she doesn't look that unlike me, and she always plays real down-to-earth people with a lot of feeling.'' Finding an actor as ''unbelievable'' as her husband might be tougher. Traina, 13 years her senior, serves as Steel's sounding board and business manager. ''I was very lucky,'' she says. ''After 15 years, I look at him and think, 'Oh, my God, he's so nice and so there and so helpful.''' Sounds like a match made in pop-literary heaven.