Teens. It’s never been more challenging to reach this influential and elusive audience: not only are teen consumers becoming ever more sophisticated and skeptical, but now, more than ever, programmers must ensure that teen-targeted programs do not offend adult sensibilities.
In the ‘TeenScreen’ special report, we examine recent winners in teen programming and hear directly from those targeting today’s teensÑsharing their strategies for successfully connecting with the ‘arbiters of cool.’
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Peter Engel has hit on something with teens. His success with this elusive demographic started with the first show he created in 1988, NBC’s Saved By The Bell, which has become one of the longest-running live-action series on Saturday mornings. Subsequently, the producer has carved out a solid niche on NBC with the TNBC programming block and will expand this year into an original cable series.
What’s Engel’s angle for reaching teens? ‘I don’t know if we have a secret formula,’ he says. ‘The key is to deal with [teens] with an element of respect.’ According to Engel, his storylines deal with issues and situations that may not be momentous, but could rock a fragile teenager’s worldÑbeing stood up on a date or peer pressure to do drugs, for instance. ‘You have to respect these issues. No 16-year-old that’s just had her heart broken wants to hear there will be a million other guys.’
Even though his programs admittedly take place in fantasy high schools far removed from the norm, Engel aims for a slice-of-life feel. ‘We try to deal with things kids deal with every day. I think that’s been the secret of our success,’ he says.
Not surprisingly, Engel’s long-running teen block has been trendsetting. Other recent entries into the category include Saban’s Breaker High and Sweet Valley High. At USA Network, a new weekday afternoon teen block has launched this fall with an original Engel series, USA High, accompanied by reruns of Saved by the Bell: The New Class. At NBC, new episodes of that flagship show will remain as the cornerstone of the TNBC block, accompanied by a new season of Hang Time and the new Engel series City Guys, a slightly edgier take on the producer’s original formula.
Adding an edge seems to be Engel’s focus this year for new shows. ‘City Guys is more real [than previous shows]. The writing is more edgy. I just felt it would be great to do a show with attitude, a logical next step,’ says Engel. The show features two teenage boys, one from the upper crust and one from the streets, thrown together in the gritty atmosphere of Manhattan.
‘FCC issues are actually easier to find in this show because we’re tackling bigger issues. For instance, City Guys, like Saved By the Bell, deals with death, but really touches the main characters more deeply.’ Engel describes one episode where a car jumps the curb onto the sidewalk and kills a kid in front of the main characters. The producer is quick to point out, however, that what’s edgy in the Engel environment is viewed as tame elsewhere, especially considering shows like Dawson’s Creek and Beverly Hills, 90210, which serve up ample doses of sex and violence.
Engel’s new cable entry also has an edge. USA High, the story of a group of vastly diverse American high school students all attending an American school in Paris, features older-looking actors and steamier content than previous Engel fare. ‘The USA High kids were older and had more experience. We were playing it as 18, so the actors were 19, 20 or 21.’ As ads for the show attest, the cast is also more overtly sexy than on previous Engel shows.
According to Engel, casting charismatic leads is a critical part of serving this star-hungry demographic, and while the producer aims to deliver programming with a conscience, the shows are known less for messages than the messengersÑa fresh crop of young heartthrobs each season. Teen stars discovered by Engel often end up gracing the pages of Seventeen magazine and teen posters across the U.S. Although one of the original aims of Engel’s series was to provide role models, the producer is wary of hitting kids over the head with a message. ‘Some of our characters try to find the easy way out, but in the final analysis, they always do the right thing. Bill Cosby at the Kids Summit this year in Washington said, `You cannot teach algebra on TV, but algebra can be funny if you tell a good story about it.’