'Tweener' TV too hot for parents?

‘Tweener’ TV too hot for parents?

Tim Goodman
Wednesday, June 9, 2004

As a matter of fact, it is your father’s Oldsmobile.

It’s amazing how it’s so hard to avoid becoming your parents or, worse, parenting like them. In a world that rapidly seems to pass adult traits to the young, television has always been a culprit, sometimes with good reason. And yet, in the subculture known as “tweeners” — kids still looking up at their teen years but feeling more mature than their age or the television geared toward them — some of the programming may alarm parents. Or it may encourage them.

It depends on what worries you. Some parents limit the television watching of their very young children (1 to 5) but surprisingly allow them to view programming with commercials, when plenty of it is available without. In the same vein, news of the world, with its often graphic and bloody content, divides parents grappling with what to let their kids see and the desire to raise an informed child.

And for the realists out there, seeing the bare-it-all fashions of teens and preteens, understanding the pervasive influence of MTV and other entertainment outlets, there could be a sense of inevitability that you may win some battles with a 12-year-old now that you’re bound to lose with a 15- year-old later.

But it doesn’t make parental viewing decisions any easier, and in the tweener world there are some eyebrow-raising developments even for people who thought they’d have very little problem being hip or lenient.

Nickelodeon, the cable channel that has already raised a couple of generations of kids, has a history of splintering its air time to try new networks (Nick at Nite for nostalgia and classics, Noggin for preschoolers — with the former splintering again into TV Land and the latter becoming its own channel). For a while now, Nickelodeon’s tweener channel-within-a-channel, the N, has cultivated its target audience of 10- to 14-year-olds with a sly mix of drama, comedy, reality and animation — including recycled hits like “My So-Called Life” and “Daria.” But far and away, the channel’s signature series is the Canadian import “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” which rose from the ashes of “Degrassi” junior high and high school versions.

In its current incarnation, “Degrassi: The Next Generation” — and by extension, the N — has cultivated a loyal audience by avoiding the sugar- coating niceties of old-school teen TV and by treating those 10- to 14-year- olds as, well, not adults per se, but definitely maturing viewers. “Degrassi” focuses on a high school with a disparate student body, with countless individual stories to tell (which is why the franchise has lasted this long). There’s nothing corny or sweet about “Degrassi” as it boldly tackles everything from obesity to date rape, thongs to drugs.

“Degrassi: The Next Generation” earns the kind of street cred that no after-school special ever could. The N, and virtually every episode of “Degrassi,” tries so hard to be grown up that grown-up viewers might be a little bit stunned by the effort. It’s a good thing, then, that there’s a Web site parents can visit to have discussions about what their tweeners just watched and whether they’ve made an egregious error in letting them.

In May, the N ran a marathon of all 49 half-hour “Degrassi” episodes, leading up to last Friday’s debut for the summer season (there will be eight episodes, airing Fridays at 8 and 10 p.m.). If any parent sat through that, they came out the other side either forged with a better understanding of what today’s kids really want to watch, or were scarred for life.

This series is already living up to the show’s history of bold topic choices by creating a two-episode arc in which a girl finds out she’s pregnant and gets an abortion. However, the N is not showing those episodes.

There are undoubtedly loads of parents who believe that date rape and abortion are subjects a 10-year-old shouldn’t be learning about in a TV drama. Then again, other parents might see it as two less talks they need to brace themselves over.

The allure of setting the drama in a high school goes beyond built-in storylines. It’s perfect niche programming for a cable channel seeking demographically delicious preteens.

Most teens “view up,” meaning they are less interested in shows geared toward them and more interested in programming aimed at grown-ups, whether it’s “Friends” or a 10 p.m. drama they might otherwise be barred from watching. The same is true of tweeners, who seek something with a little more edge than “Spongebob Squarepants.”

If a teen series is done well, however, teens will watch, and that’s true of “Degrassi,” where most of the characters are about 16. So the N wins on all fronts.

This isn’t to jump into your father’s Olds and toot the horn at eroding morals. What “Degrassi” is attempting is, in fact, both necessary and bold. It also happens to be done with quite a lot of flair, despite each show’s title being named after some ’80s alt-rock song, which gives some hint about the writers’ ages. “Degrassi” mostly handles its controversial topics well, delivering lessons without the usual lecturing. But if you let your kids watch, they will be getting an issue-of-the-week education on subjects that may or may not be appropriate.

At least the N is up front about what it is. The tagline is “Real. Life. Now.” And the Web site boasts that it is “different than any other network. Because all of the shows on the N are about the way life really is and the stuff that really matters… The N is REAL. Real doesn’t mean just reality programs, documentaries or the news. It means the shows on the N are about your real life and the things you’re dealing with every day.”

The channel makes a bid for relevance by stating, “The N isn’t about the Hollywood or make-believe version of your life. It’s about your life the way it really happens.”

Of course, that’s the kind of we’re-not-your-parents talk that works like a charm, generation to generation, but if parents are feeling less assured of the channel’s intentions, then the discussion site — “Using the N in Real Life” (discussions.the-n.com) — provides its own declaration: “The N offers these resources as a tool to help grown-ups communicate with — and deepen their understanding of — the young adolescents they know, work with and care for.”

Right or wrong, this channel is acting as teacher, not just entertainer. That may be a little jolt of reality to parents who didn’t pick up on the N’s thoughtfully produced “A Walk in Your Shoes” series and the public service messages inside. To be fair, that’s a series more obviously from the be-a-good- person school of broadcasting. “Degrassi,” on the other hand, dispenses life lessons with less sugar (and, sometimes, less clothing).

Hmmm. A cable channel as home-study course. Here’s the mission statement, according to the channel’s discussion site:

“The N is a commercial-free television network and Web site from MTV Networks, dedicated to helping young adolescents, ages 10-14, figure out their lives. On TV and online (the-n.com), the N presents real life issues in an honest, age-appropriate manner. With dramas, comedies and reality series, the N promotes diversity and tolerance and arms young viewers with real life skills to help them cope with adolescence. In everything we do, The N:

— Encourages young adolescents to embrace healthy risks that lead to learning.

— Arms kids with knowledge, strategies and “habits of mind” — habitual approaches to thinking, so they can meet life’s challenges with resilience.

— Fosters respect toward self and others — a cornerstone of kids’ efforts to shape a distinct, meaningful identity.

— Helps young adolescents find ways to engage with the world beyond childhood.”

The feeling here is that Bay Area parents are probably fine with the content — us being all open-minded and such. But some families may have a problem with “healthy risks” and may not believe their 10-year- olds (or younger) are ready for “the world beyond childhood.”

It’s something to think about, especially if you’re a parent who remembers that nobody got pregnant or date raped on “Bugs Bunny.”

Then again, when you were a kid, nobody had invented the word tweener and you didn’t have a cable channel programmed just for you.


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