A couple decades ago, a Canadian-born property called Degrassi forever broke the mold of teen drama series by throwing untried kid actors at hard-hitting story lines that touched on real youth issues like teen pregnancy, AIDS and suicide. The original shows, Kids of Degrassi (1979 to 1985), Degrassi Junior High (1986 to 1988) and Degrassi High (1989 to 1990), quickly developed a cult-hit status both at home on the CBC and abroad, where it sold into roughly 100 territories. In fact, even 11 years after the shows stopped airing in Canada, episodes are still running in territories like Denmark, Greece and Israel. The franchise has even spawned a successful video series.
Looking to recreate the magic for a modern kids audience, Epitome Pictures (formed by original Degrassi co-creator Linda Schuyler) has hooked up with Canadian broadcaster CTV and international distributor AAC Kids to roll out Degrassi: The Next Generation. Consisting of 15 half hours budgeted at just under US$6 million in total, the series bowed this month on CTV and is set to air in Q1 2002 on Noggin in the U.S. Overseas, BBC Worldwide will handle rights in Europe and Africa. The franchise’s past success and this level of initial broadcast interest certainly bode well for the revamp, but the question is whether the Canadian comeback kid can bat one out of the park again.
Schuyler is adamant that everyone involved in the project fully understands that a nostalgic hook is going to be lost on today’s kids, but she’s betting that the show’s edgy subject matter will be as much a draw today as it was in the beginning. Back in the days before Degrassi, there were few programs that dealt with the kinds of topics that parents and kids preferred not to talk about. Schuyler’s position is that those are just the sort of areas that needed–and still need–to be addressed.
The CBC started airing all of the old episodes last fall during its after-school block, attracting 300,000 viewers on average. In addition to older eyeballs–most likely belonging to long-standing Degrassi fans–a siginificant early teen audience also tuned in, leading Schuyler to assume that there was a new market for her Degrassi messages.
The initial popularity of the reruns started her thinking about how a relaunch could play out, and it turns out that one of the characters from the original show had a baby in junior high that would be 12 years old today. The new series will feature Spike’s daughter Emma as a main character–with a whole cast of other new kids going through the old Degrassi paces.
But times have changed in 11 years. Although some kid issues remain the same, there are obviously new topics that need to be addressed–many of them revolving around the impact of technology on social life. For example, the reunion special that marks the debut of the series focuses on an Internet stalker. Emma has developed a long-distance on-line relationship with a boy from Alaska. He tells her he’ll be in town and arranges a meeting, but it turns out that the boy from Alaska is actually an older man preying on kids over the Internet.
Convergence is also at the heart of the comeback, and the show’s website (www.degrassi.tv) aims to drive kids back and forth between the tube and the Internet throughout the first season. The big-budget initiative features elements that are integral to on-air story lines, and it was that synergy that sold Bill Mustos, senior VP of dramatic programming at CTV. Developed with Toronto-based Snap Media, the Degrassi site has an on-line school (in which viewers can enroll and take part by voting for presidents), chat rooms (facilitating school gossip and general conversation about Degrassi developments), journals and newsletters.
But a fancy website and working technology into story lines does not a hit show make. Mustos asks: ‘Are we taking a risk? Absolutely.’ Despite, and perhaps because of, cult popularity, there are challenges in making Degrassi work again. ‘There were no expectations the first time. Just passion, and it caught,’ he says. Obviously everyone involved wants to capitalize on the original’s popularity, but that can also cut the other way, warns Mustos. ‘Degrassi: The Next Generation won’t have the luxury of time to find its feet like the old series had. This time, we’ll be under a very different microscope.’
Double Take is a new monthly column that breaks down the game plans of veteran properties attempting one more round in the kids entertainment arena. If you would like to suggest a candidate for this feature, please e-mail Simon Ashdown (firstname.lastname@example.org).