Broadcasters more willing to take chances with teen dramas

When I was 12 years old and wanted to learn about boyfriends, periods and other adolescent travails, I turned to Judy Blume novels. My favorite was Are you there God? It's me, Margaret....
January 1, 1999

When I was 12 years old and wanted to learn about boyfriends, periods and other adolescent travails, I turned to Judy Blume novels. My favorite was Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret.

We’ve come a long way in 20 years. Then, we learned about sex and drugs from friends or books. Today, it’s TV and the Internet. Broadcasters internationally are less conservative and more willing to take chances when it comes to vetting content and scripts than they have been in the past. The increasing number of outlets means traditionally stodgy broadcasters are prepared to show it like it is, particularly when the demographic bull’s-eye is clearly teenagers.

Enter the series Junk and Teen Confessions. The first is a solidly British program airing on the BBC. The second is derived from the personal diary and subsequent stage play written by 17-year-old Maria Mariana. From two ends of the world come two series that speak frankly to pre-adults.

Junk is similar to the hit feature film Trainspotting-both address the seductive attraction of drugs. Junk is adapted from Melvin Burgess’s novel of the same name for youth, and is more strident in its condemnation of drugs than Trainspotting. It features two 14-year-old runaways who experience their first taste of freedom, and their first heroin high, when hanging out with a group of squatters. The cliché descent into addiction is recorded, but graphic depictions of shooting up are downplayed for classroom use.

‘The BBC has never skirted around hard-hitting issues,’ says Sue Nott, executive producer at BBC Education, a unit that produces programming for school viewing to air on BBC 1 and BBC 2. ‘The strand `Scene,’ [which targets classrooms], is renowned for tackling these kinds of issues, . . . but it never attempts to be sensational. We will not be glamorizing drugs in order to gain ratings.’

Although its birth mother is BBC Education, Junk is veering away from the pedagogical course normally prescribed. The three 30-minute episodes will not only air in the mornings on BBC Education this month, but they are also scheduled to air on evenings on BBC 2 starting in May. ‘This is quite unusual, and an affirmation that this is a particularly powerful piece of work,’ says Nott. The prime-time version, however, will have a little more edge.

At its launch at MIPCOM, the miniseries received interest from about 60 countries, including Holland and Scandinavia.

While Junk is based on an award-winning book, Teen Confessions, a 52 x 26-minute Brazilian drama, is adapted from the diaries of actress Maria Mariana. Her father, Domingos Oliveira, is a famous Brazilian director, actor and screenwriter, who encouraged Maria to turn her scribbles into a play.

Teen Confessions is Maria’s confessional from the ages of nine to 17. Her play won such rave reviews in Brazil among teens ages 12 to 18 that director Daniel Filho, a former Globo TV Network actor and director, approached her about adapting the play into a series.

Set in the bohemian middle-class neighborhood of Ipanema and the surrounding beaches, the show is a little like a Latin version of Beverly Hills, 90210, only the family dynamics center around a man and his four daughters. Maria plays the eldest sibling.

The storyline is female-centric: breasts, dieting, beauty, tampons, sex, friendships, sibling rivalry and parental pressure. ‘The target audience is girls, but boys watch it too,’ says producer Julio Worcman of Dez Produç›es. For boys, it’s like reading their own sister’s private diary-or better yet, the diary of the pretty sister of their best friend.

The TV version premiered in August 1994 on the children’s channel TV Cultura, and rapidly climbed to the number three spot in the competitive Sao Paolo TV market. It later went national on Bandeirantes National Network. Distributor Synapse Produç›es licensed the first 22 episodes to TF1 in France, which in turn offered to co-produce the next 30 episodes through Marathon Productions.

The concoction devised to meet co-production requirements is predictable-two Brazilian girls travel to France to live with a local family. The actresses’ commentary is a fresh addition to the show. Shots of realism are injected periodically when the girls address the camera. The asides are intended as a bonding tool, a knowing electronic wink to angst-ridden teenagers.

Although the series is scheduled to air in France this year, Worcman says ‘the international marketplace has not yet discovered it. Some programmers do not have the courage to air the show because the girls’ behavior is disturbing [in its frankness].’ However, it’s not surprising that a handful of American producers are at least considering buying a script option and developing a separate U.S. version, given that the country worships youth culture and young talent.

As a producer working on the British cable TV series Renford Rejects, Steven Bawol of Helion Pictures points out that his show is less realistic than traditional terrestrial shows in the U.K. Actually, Renford Rejects sort of straddles the traditional cultural divide. ‘England is more socialist than America,’ says Bawol. ‘It would be very hard to do a Beverly Hills-type show out of London or Europe-it’s too far away from [teens'] experience. But [British kids will] watch a show about American kids.’

Set against the backdrop of British kids football (soccer to all North American readers), Renford Rejects was conceived with a European audience in mind. Bawol developed the show after he was approached by Janie Grace, managing director of Nickelodeon UK, who was impressed by the TV series L’annexe that Bawol produced and directed for France 2. She was particularly keen on the single-camera/one-location approach of the French series, says Bawol. As a result, it became a blueprint for his new show. Not only is Renford Rejects shot with a sole camera, but the director often demands a single take.

Although commissioned by Nickelodeon UK, which has a target audience of ages five to 11, Renford Rejects stretches into the early teen demo. Its distribution route-from cable to terrestrial channel-is also an unorthodox one for the U.K. market. After the series premiered on Nick UK in February 1998, it was sold to Channel 4 for a prompt second-window run in the summer. Nickelodeon International has sold the series to Nick Latin America, Nick Australia, RTE Ireland and Nick’s digital Games & Sports channel.

Meanwhile, American broadcasters are programming the surreal. Telescene Productions in Montreal, Canada, is in production on Big Wolf on Campus, a derivative show of such teen fare as Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and Charmed. Big Wolf is for slated for Family Fox Channel this year.

Pimples and rejection are not the stuff of American teen dramas. Spelling Entertainment proffered the template for the spate of young adult shows with its long-running series Beverly Hills, 90210. Aaron Spelling successfully remodeled his `80s hits-Dallas and Dynasty-and made them work for teens. The 90210 gang is aging, so Spelling is growing the next generation of West Beverly high school students in anticipation that the current show, having already lost its main star, Jason Priestly, in November, will be put to pasture. The success of 90210 taught broadcasters that teens will accept older actors playing younger roles, and tune in to programs that focus on an older peer group.

That marketing knowledge has become an unwritten law in L.A. This season’s hot project out of Hollywood, Felicity, follows the Beverly Hills rule book. Felicity is a show by creators and executive producers J.J. Abrams (Armageddon) and Matt Reeves (The Pallbearer). At casting call, actress Keri Russell was almost passed over because Abrams thought she was ‘too beautiful’ for the part, but the producers quickly changed their minds; after all, this is still Hollywood.

The show revolves around an impulsive high school grad who abandons plans for Stanford pre-med to follow the boy of her choice to New York. Of course, he barely knows she exists. Felicity adapts by throwing herself into the hub of university campus and a new peer group. Felicity is to high school students what Friends is to university co-eds-the shows attract their target audience by attempting to divine their future.

Abrams and Reeves have added all the ingredients of a Beverly Hills, with a pinch of The Wonder Years and Reality Bites thrown in. Felicity expresses her emotions through letters she records on tape for her best friend, Sally. The show does not have the earnestness of Junk or Teen Confessions, but it does offer a little more insight into the teenage psyche than its series equivalents in Hollywood.

Teen Dramas


Producer: Zenith North for the BBC

Format: live action, three x 30 minutes

Target Audience: 14 to 16 years old

Budget: £850,000 (US$1.4 million) in total

Distribution: Minotaur International

Broadcast: airing on BBC Education this month, and on BBC 2 in May

Teen Confessions

Producers: Dez Produç›es, Marathon Productions, TF1, 15, 30 Productions and TV Cultura

Format: live action, 52 x 26 minutes

Target Audience: 12 to 18 years old

Budget: US$130,000 per episode

Distribution: Synapse Produç›es

Broadcast: premiered on TV Cultura in 1994, and is now airing on Bandeirantes National Network; to be announced on TF1

Renford Rejects

Producer: Helion Pictures commissioned by Nickelodeon UK

Format: live action, 13 x 30 minutes

Target Audience: seven to 14 years old

Budget: £100,000 (US$166,000) per episode

Distribution: Nickelodeon International (Nickelodeon UK)

Broadcast: Started airing on Nickelodeon UK in February 1998, and on Channel 4 in summer 1998, and is now airing on Nickelodeon Latin America, Nickelodeon Australia and RTE Ireland; will air on Nickelodeon Games & Sports in 1999


Producers: Imagine Television in association with Touchstone Television

Format: live action, 22 x one hour

Target audience: core audience of teens, primarily girls ages 12 to 17; secondary audience of women ages 18 to 24 and 18 to 34

Budget: Not disclosed

Distribution: Buena Vista International

Broadcast: airing on The WB Television Network

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