Teens Flock to the Digital Cable Drama Where Angst and Conflict Are Part Of the Daily Routine
By NANCY CHANDROSS (ABC News)
Oct. 18, 2005 A little school in Canada is generating a lot of attention stateside from teens (and some adults!) who are tuning in to find out if Craig and Ashley have broken up or if their friends will ever forgive a former pal for inciting a school shooting.
Now in its fifth season, “Degrassi: The Next Generation” has become a powerhouse for evening programming on the digital cable channel The N, which airs the series nightly mixing new and repeat episodes.
As gossip and teen angst are portrayed between reruns of “Moesha” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” the Canada-based series is clearly winning the popularity contest. When the show’s actors took part in a mall tour this past summer, 40,000 teens showed up. The series even caught the attention of filmmaker Kevin Smith, who appeared in several episodes last season after having followed the original “Degrassi: Junior High” on PBS in the 1980s.
The current crop of students is a mix of bookworms, punks, popular kids and awkward teens who have become superstars to the young fans of the show. “From my perspective, it couldn’t be more wonderful,” said series creator Lynda Schuyler, who developed the franchise in Toronto 25 years ago.
“As a producer I thought, ‘I wonder if we’re doing the right thing? We’ve had a success. I don’t know if we should necessarily play with that,'” said Schuyler. “And to have it be embraced in such a way not feeling stale, but feeling fresher than ever is a wonderful place to be.”
What separates this show from other teen programming is its outright determination to deal with shocking topics with no sugarcoating. In between the spirit squad practices and school dances at Degrassi High, Schuyler is incorporating story lines that may give parents nightmares about what is happening in schools.
“At the beginning of every year we, in our story department, sit around and talk about ‘what are the kind of issues that we would like to tackle?'” said Schuyler. “If kids are talking about it in the school hallways, they’re talking about it in the mall we should be able to talk about it at Degrassi.”
Real-Life Education From the Hallways of ‘Degrassi’
As digital cable expanded a few years ago, Noggin began to establish itself as an educational network for young children during the day. Programmers knew they needed some shows for older kids in the evening, when the channel would be known as The N, and were shopping for a hit just as “Degrassi” was planning its 20th reunion.
They’ve brought back a few of the original teens from “Degrassi: Junior High,” who are now the responsible adults on the updated series. “In the very first season, we had a pregnant teenager, and [her baby is] who Emma is now her mom, Spike, was pregnant in eighth grade,” said Schuyler.
This season, Emma’s best friend, Manny, is pursuing an acting career and thinks she’ll need cosmetic surgery to be considered by an agent. The show has made a reputation for pushing storylines a little further than you might expect. In the recent season premiere, Manny demonstrated just how far she would go for fame she allowed herself to be filmed topless by another student at a party, who later circulated the digital clip on the Internet without her permission.
Schuyler, a former eighth-grade teacher, said she has a mandate to both entertain and educate with the program, which is reviewed by researchers and educators to make sure scripts accurately portray various sides of an issue. She also provides episode guides for real classrooms to follow the series, in which the plot developments are never wrapped up neatly in a single episode.
“You will be seeing that character week to week, living with the outcome of whatever they’ve dealt with on the show,” said Schuyler.
She said one of the hardest episodes to film involved a school shooting when the bullied student, Rick, responded to his aggressors by bringing a gun to school.
“Degrassi has always been a safe environment to bring a gun into that environment was really there was just a different feel on set,” said Schuyler. “It was quiet, it was somber, the kids knew it just didn’t feel good actually and that’s because you had a gun in what should have been a safe place.”
The episode ended with Rick committing suicide, after a bullet injured the school’s basketball star, Jimmy. He was paralyzed from the waist down and now attends school in a wheelchair while one of the instigators, Spinner, has returned to school and is desperately trying to win back the friends who blame him for the incident.
Other episodes have dealt with alcohol abuse, mental health problems, and lighter subjects like parties and dating. Schuyler said she remains interested in this age group because of their daily struggles. “They’re experiencing adult situations for the first time in their lives I’ve always had a lot of sympathy and empathy for teenagers,” said Schuyler.
One Hit Prompts Another
If Schuyler is enjoying the resurgence of “Degrassi,” probably next in line cheering its praises are producers at The N who are building an entire network around the show.
“We can speak specifically to a teen audience, be very aware of the trends in their lives and everything that we do is always put through that filter,” said Sarah Tomassi Lindman, vice president of programming and production. “There really is no other place like that on TV, that’s the great thing about being a digital cable network.”
The network is currently in 45 million homes and the ratings for “Degrassi: The Next Generation” keep growing, defying the standard thinking that a repeat will play to a smaller audience. “Every single time we run them it gets a bigger rating than the last time,” said Angela Leaney, senior vice president of brand communications.
To satisfy that appetite they’ve added more original programs, including the successful series “Instant Star,” and realized they needed to produce documentary-style programs about the “Degrassi” cast members who have a big audience, but are not chronicled in the tabloids. They also have the actors answer reader questions on their Web site, and continually promote the show while it’s on the air.
Leaney said they produce 30 promotional spots per season double what is typically produced for an evening series. The spots have included instant messages on screen with fictional teens reacting to the drama, as the marketers use slang to make sure the station speaks the latest teen lingo.
“We try and keep one step ahead of our audience so we avoid the e-mail, ‘OK, I’m bored of that. Let’s see something else on air’,” said Leaney. “I don’t want any marketing leaving our network unless it’s entertaining.”
The show is clearly a hit among the younger set, but don’t count out those who have graduated from college and are well into their careers. Schuyler said that while they don’t track ratings for older age groups, they hear from adults who also are glued to the series for its universal themes of those high school years.
“You do seem to live a part of your life that stays with you for a long time,” said Schuyler. “We all remember the feeling of what it’s like to not be ‘in’ with a certain crowd or to have your heart broken by the kid who sits behind you in English class. Maybe it’s just stirring a chord.”