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"My So-Called Life" is Moving Closer To Death

The Wall Street Journal
January 24, 1995

'My So-Called Life' is Moving Closer to Death

by John Lippman

"My So-Called Life" should be one of the new smash hits of the TV season.

Critics praise the sophisticated drama series on ABC about the inner and often conflicted world of a 15-year-old girl as deftly written, expertly directed and exceptionally acted. Fans include both teens and baby boomers who remember what it was like to be one. Its newcomer star, actress Claire Danes, this past weekend was given a Golden Globe award by the Holly- wood Foreign Press Association as best actress in a televised drama series.

There is just one problem: No one watches the show.

Oh, a few do. "My So-Called Life" attracts a weekly audience of about 10 million viewers. But that's an average of just 6.9% of the nation's TV homes. Out of 114 prime-time programs, it ranks 103rd; among teens, it's 34th. In its 8-to-9-p.m. time period on Thursdays, it is up against two exceptionally strong NBC comedies -- "Mad About You" and "Friends" -- and Fox's sitcom "Martin." All siphon off the young adult female viewers that are the show's target audience.

ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert says he will not make a decision about renewing "My So-Called Life" for next fall until the spring, when the network has fin- ished its program-development slate. But he confesses to bewilderment that the audience for the series has not grown. "A lot of people have sampled the show and not come back," he says. "It's extremely frustrating."

The difficulties that ABC faces with "My So-Called Life" come at a time when the networks are showing remark- able patience -- remarkable by traditional network standards anyway -- in keeping struggling shows on the air. CBS, for example, renewed "Picket Fences," a two- time Emmy Award winner for best drama now in its third year, despite the fact it had only a 16% share of the view- ing households at the end of its first season and ranked 74th among all prime-time shows.

But because hour-long shows like "Picket Fences" and "My So-Called Life" are among the toughest programs to launch and find an audience for, some in the industry fear they may be forced to return to so-called lowest-common- denominator programming in a bid to attract the widest possible audience.

The last of the 19 "My So-Called Life" episodes ABC ordered airs this Thursday, and the economics of network television make the future picture grim. Most series get the ax if they can't draw at least 15 million viewers, and top-rated shows like ABC's "Roseanne" or NBC's new hos- pital-drama hit "E.R." typically draw more than 30 million viewers each week. From an advertising standpoint, "My So-Called Life" can only get about $75,000 per 30-second commercial; by contrast, half-hour sitcom "Roseanne" gets about $250,000 for a half-minute ad.

Production costs make the economics even harsher. One- hour-long dramas typically cost more than $1 million an episode to produce -- "My So-Called Life" costs $1.1 million -- and their often multiple story lines and multilayered characters make such shows a tough sell in reruns. Producers usually recoup their investments in programs by selling the shows into syndication after their network runs. Foreign markets are increasingly important, too -- but they usually prefer action over angst.

Moving a faltering show into another time slot can often give it a needed ratings boost. Fox's "Party of Five" aver- aged a 9% share of the audience, ranking 111th, when it was on Monday nights at 9 against such stiff competition as CBS's "Murphy Brown." Recently, the show was moved to Wed- nesday at 9, and the ratings popped up by 28%.

"My So-Called Life" executive producer Edward Zwick believes that moving the show to a later time period could help boost its ratings, too. But such a move is problem- atic. ABC, which is winning 50% of all time periods in prime time among adults 18 to 49 and could finish the season as the No. 1 network, has few available slots for "My So-Called Life."

"We have the great misfortune of being on a network that is doing very, very well," sighs Mr. Zwick, who with his partner Marshall Herskovitz created "thirtysomething," the critically hailed 1980's drama about yuppie ennui.

Although Mr. Zwick calls ABC's willingness to hang in with his show "extraordinary" despite its poor ratings, he never- theless adds that "to cut it adrift at this point would not only make a real statement about quality in TV, but it would also be bad business."

"My So-Called Life" was created by Winnie Holtzmann, a former writer on "thirtysomething," who along with the pro- ducers believed that teenagers on TV had been "objectified and exploited, their inner life had never been given a voice," says Mr. Zwick. The project sat in development limbo at ABC for a year as network executives worried whether a series that revolved around the interior world of adolescents could entice viewers. ABC program executives dubbed it "Fifteen- something."

Some in the industry say dramas defined by characters' inner life and moved along by dialogue rather than action are a harder sell these days when shows like "NYPD Blue" on ABC and NBC's "E.R." quickly skyrocket to the top of the ratings. Those shows have in part captured viewers because they employ the laugh-a-minute pacing of sitcoms and jump-cut editing pioneered by MTV.

"The shows that critics tend to deem 'quality' are often going to be those shows that don't have the high jinks and pyrotechnics that immediately catch audiences," says John Matoian, president of News Corp.'s Fox Entertainment.

To be sure, networks do target specific segments of the population more than they did in the past, which allowed for the survival of such series as NBC's "St. Elsewhere" and "thirtysomething," even though they didn't attract huge audiences. Still, some argue that the problem with dramas like "My So-Called Life" is that the target may be too narrow.

"You need to put programs on the air that are more broad- based, more part of the broadcast philosophy than a narrow- cast philosophy, and this program just didn't do it," says Betsy Frank, executive vice president of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi that buys ad time for clients. "The net- works have to be responsive to more than just the critis."

“My dad thinks every person in the world is having more fun than him.”

Angela Chase, Episode 1: "My So-Called Life (Pilot)"