Peter Engel mines teen music scene, prime time and talent management

With over 700 episodes in Peter Engel Productions' teen portfolio, it is difficult to imagine a time when Saturday morning programming consisted solely of animated fare. Spurred on by NBC's Brandon Tartikoff 11 years ago to introduce live-action series for teens...
March 1, 2000

With over 700 episodes in Peter Engel Productions’ teen portfolio, it is difficult to imagine a time when Saturday morning programming consisted solely of animated fare. Spurred on by NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff 11 years ago to introduce live-action series for teens and tweens to the Saturday morning time slot, Peter Engel has since managed to produce a body of programming that both meets FCC regulations and remains appealing to a frequently fickle teen audience.

With six shows currently airing-four on NBC (Hang Time, City Guys, One World, Saved By The Bell: The New Class), one in syndication on Tribune Entertainment (Malibu CA) and another on cabler USA Network (USA High)-Peter Engel Productions is not resting on its teen laurels just yet. Engel and his team have yet another four shows in the teen development arsenal, as well as a Broadway musical on the horizon and a recently launched talent agency that still needs tending.

Not looking to necessarily abandon what has worked in the past, there has been a steady progression to move beyond the school-centric environment that was previously the backbone of most of Engel’s shows. The new series in development look to further this effort by providing teen characters with platforms to exhibit more personality and depth. While Engel’s past projects can be loosely generalized as ensemble pieces, future shows aim to tackle story lines from one point of view-one character’s journey that will give voice to the reasons behind his or her actions. At the heart of Engel’s shows is the understanding that every generation thinks that they are different from the previous one. This simple adage has created a natural evolution in Engel’s projects. ‘[Teens] have more issues and more problems and challenges and dreams-it’s all bigger and more scattered because the world is so much more complicated now,’ explains Engel.

A prime example of having to produce programming that is in sync with an ever-morphing audience can be seen in Zack Morris, a pivotal character from Engel’s longest-running show, the original Saved By the Bell, who would likely not be embraced as enthusiastically by a teen audience today as he was 10 years ago. ‘Zack, portrayed by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and his `I want to marry a beautiful girl, be a game show host and make lots of money’ philosophy would not fly as easily today,’ admits Engel. When you compare Zack to the lead characters in contemporary Engel shows (such as Hang Time’s main female character, who is the only girl on an all-boys basketball team, or any of the racially diverse adopted teens all living under the same roof on One World), he is suddenly one-dimensional and grappling with some not-so-pressing issues by today’s standards.

This is not to say that Saved By the Bell doesn’t have an audience today. On top of the episodes of The New Class running on NBC as part of its Saturday morning TNBC block, there are almost 100 eps of the original Bell airing on USA Network in syndication (watched by both adults who loved the show as teens, as well as today’s teens for its retro appeal). The show airs in 85 countries, and there is a Saved by the Bell Broadway musical is the works based on the original class. Engel says the stage show is being created à la Footloose or Grease to start touring as early as next year. While no cast is attached yet, Garry Marshall has committed to direct if his own production schedule permits.

When asked what he thinks is behind his shows’ long-running success, Engel primarily credits good casting. He says the trick is to cast young, interesting people and have them portray characters that other young people will find compelling. ‘We started out on the basis that teen life was really interesting and worth exploring, and we try to be true to that,’ says Engel. A diverse group of writers of all ages-some on-board since the beginning, others not long out of high school themselves-helps to generate relevant story lines.

Not having written an episode since 1993 (Engel penned 11 of the first 100 Bells, as well as the pilots for City Guys, USA High and Malibu CA), he leaves the writing up to his team and has relegated day-to-day matters to company president Linda Mancuso. While Engel remains very connected to all shows, his primary role is to think out of the box and determine what, as a company, they’ll all be doing next week, or two years from now.

Looking ahead just a few months to fall 2000, Peter Engel Productions has four teen shows in development for tentative new season launches. Thematically, the shows will examine how teens deal with new environments, and two of the projects are built around up-and-coming teen music talent, a corner of the biz that Engel believes is largely under-represented on TV. Peter Engel Productions has signed one deal with Fox for a prime-time family show starring R&B sensation Usher, and another with recent Seventeen magazine ‘It Girl’ Alecia Elliott, a 17-year-old country & western singer whose single ‘Diggin’ It’ is currently climbing the C&W charts. The show will center on Alecia as the lead singer of an all-girl band.

While these are Engel’s two principal development projects for the teen market, the company is also working on another incarnation of the never-say-die Saved by the Bell, aptly titled Saved by the Bell: 2K. The New Class version of the long-running franchise is presently in its final season, and although pick-up on a 2K season is not definite, the new generation will be waiting in the wings if the network calls. Rounding out Engel’s teen slate is Townies and Preppies (working title), a half-hour series that focuses broadly on how two very different economic groups co-exist together, and more specifically, on one teen boy acclimating to a new school.

Even without factoring teen music tastes into the bargain, changing wants and needs are a challenge for all producers when it comes to matching product with its ideal broadcast outlet. Programming needs change as often as every six months, depending on what is and isn’t getting ratings, what’s hot for the competition, and what holes a network needs to fill. While Peter Engel Productions’ main partner thus far has been NBC (the company’s partnership contract with the caster lasts until 2003), the Usher series made more sense for Fox because the net is specifically going after both family and minority programming.

On a broader scope, Peter Engel Productions has expanded into the talent management biz with Beyond Talent, a joint venture with NBC. The agency is a separate division of the company, representing actors, writers and producers from the film, TV, theater and commercial production sectors. Its roster is comprised of talent from all age demos and is not limited solely to Engel-produced shows (though the agency does represent a few teens starring in Engel series).

This move to expand beyond the company’s traditional teen niche is also evident in the remaining shows that round out its development slate. For the first time since Engel started producing for NBC in `89, he is looking at re-entering the prime-time adult market. According to Mancuso, as a company, Peter Engel Productions is looking to reinvent itself somewhat: ‘We love what we’ve been doing, and it’s a great business to be in, but it’s time to evolve.’

Why now? Mancuso says that there are several Engel-produced half hours out there that have the same identity. ‘They are not the same show by any means, but they do have the same kind of tone.’ she explains. In addition to prime-time expansion and the talent venture, Engel is looking to get creative with some one-camera half hours, some MOWs and perhaps a feature film.

At present, Engel says he is writing a one-hour prime-time drama, divulging only that this one will focus on the family. ‘In all of our past shows, the parents have been secondary, but this new series shows them in more of a key role. Being a father, I have used a lot of personal experience in this one,’ says Engel. As to any other autobiographical element in his shows, he denies any similarities between himself and Screech, who has become somewhat of an icon, but admits laughingly, that perhaps emotionally, he would have wanted to be Zack.

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