Canadian TV producer Mickey Rogers describes the high-wire act of producing teen-acceptable programs
When Forefront first started producing Madison in 1992, broadcasters were quite discouraging about programming for teens because teens are such a difficult audience to reach. However, we love a challenge. We felt strongly about portraying teens with a balance of realism and escape, morals and interests. Along with Peter Mitchell, the creative producer, we chose to take our values of collaboration and honesty, and mix them with what teens say they want most: entertainment and reflection. To accomplish this, Forefront worked with young people at the inception of ideas, during story meetings, rough cuts and focus groups to assess how closely we came to meeting our objectives. This input resulted in the series’ wide range of characters, natural dialogue and intriguing storylines.
Madison’s characters reflect a cross-section of people from diverse social, economic and racial backgrounds, and with physical attributes ranging from glamorous to overweight. The young women are not all skin and bone, and the men are not all muscle. Some are satisfied with themselves, some are searching to discover more about themselves, and others are just confused. In this way, Madison’s range of characters caters to every teen.
Language is also important in maintaining authenticity. Because phrases like ‘groovy’ come and go, we decided to verify teen jargon by having teens read scripts and give feedback. Madison actors, young adults themselves, modify any dialogue that they find unrealistic or dated, giving the characters a genuineness acknowledged by youth.
Compelling storylines are ultimately what youths are looking for. By reaching into our own adolescent backgrounds and talking to Canadian high-school students, we came up with the emotional landscape of a teen in the `90s. Forefront conducted numerous surveys and focus groups to receive ideas for storylines. Eight of the 13 episodes from our second season were based on 49 scenarios submitted by students in English-literature classes across Canada. In addition to talking to teens across the country, Forefront invited the actors to give input. Sarah Strange, who plays Carol, suggested doing something about a teenage girl confused about her sexuality. We liked the idea, and the next season, Carol found herself confused about her feelings for Beth, a close friend and fellow band member. We had great response from viewers to this scenario-teens appreciated its daring realism.
While teens ask for realism, they crave escapism and fun, without the lessons. Anyone with a teenager will know that if you tell her she can’t wear a short skirt, she’ll more than likely add several to her collection, and get a tattoo on her thigh to boot. Teens don’t like being told what to do. They reject moralizing because they prefer to solve their own problems and be entertained by those of others. This is why Madison incorporates dramatic stories with lighter, more humorous situations. In season three, one character finds herself in the possession of two boyfriends, and another makes a fool of himself when he fails to prepare an act for his comedy club debut.
Teens also enjoy stories with messages that are implied, not stated. For this reason, we focus on creating dynamic characters and strong plots. In one episode, a new couple enjoy their first date and first kiss. She’s black and he’s white, and this initiates a racist wisecrack from a passerby. Although the effect of this racism lasts only moments for the audience, it is more powerful than a discussion by the characters or a plot that centers around the issue of racism. Instead, the theme of discrimination adds another dimension to the bigger theme of dating.
In the end, reaching teens through television programming is all about balance. Creating a formulated mix of brains, beauty, entertainment value and purpose is the key to developing and maintaining a large youth audience.
Mickey Rogers is the head of releasing and a partner at Forefront Entertainment, based in Vancouver, Canada. Madison is broadcast in 90 countries around the world.