FOX SOUNDS the first ring of what it hopes is the death knell of the traditional fall season tonight as "Beverly Hills 90210" begins a run of new episodes at 9 o'clock on Channel 45 (WBFF).
A previously unseen half hour of "The Simpsons" gives the night a gala kickoff, though that show will return to reruns next week.
Actually, Fox has been using the summertime in imaginative ways since it first came on the air. Indeed, that initial year, Fox stuck with new episodes for most of the summer months when it was up against reruns on the Big Three networks. The ratings remained pretty low, but the shows did get sampled by audiences that otherwise might never have seen them.
This summer, Fox is sprinkling new made-for-TV movies into its Monday night lineup. And the programmers plan to roll out new shows in August, September, October and November, thus avoiding the cluttered hoopla of the fall premiere week.
Though Fox would have you think otherwise, most of this has already been done in one fashion or another: Remember NBC's "double pump" strategy last year that aired many of its new shows' first episodes in August and again during premiere week? Or the many shows that
wait until after the World Series to get on the air to avoid tough competition and pre-emptions? Or the handful of shows that the Big Three are trying out this summer, just as they did last year? And nobody has found audiences big enough during the summer to justify the expense that goes along with original programming.
Of course, "Beverly Hills 90210" hasn't found audiences big enough during the regular season. Still, Fox programmers gave the show an early order for its second season and have proclaimed that they are quite pleased with the show creatively, even though they would like to see higher ratings.
The problem is that "Beverly Hills 90210" found itself up against NBC's "Cheers," the season's top-rated show, while its lead-in was the lame "Babes," which proved totally unable to hang on to the big audience hauled in by "The Simpsons" to kick off Fox's Thursday night.
But "Beverly Hills 90210" has established a significant beachhead among teen-agers. Particularly among teen-age girls -- not exactly the "Cheers" target audience -- it became the show to watch on Thursday night and to talk about on Friday at school.
"I think that's because we deal with issues that teen-agers care about in a realistic fashion," said Shannen Doherty, who stars in the show as Brenda Walsh. Doherty passed through Baltimore during the show's brief hiatus before it went into production for this early start of its second season.
"We don't talk down to teens," the 20-year-old actress said. "We've dealt with drug abuse, teen sex, drunken driving and other issues. I'm proud to be on this show."
Doherty, who was best known for her role in the black comedy "Heathers" before "Beverly Hills 90210" came along, said that one reason she thinks the show rings so true is that the writers and producers listen to the advice she and her fellow young cast members provide.
"Like they had Brenda worrying about her weight all the time. That was ridiculous," the very petite Doherty said. "I showed the producers a couple of letters from kids that said if Brenda was worried about her weight then they must be really fat. They cut BTC that out right away."
One problem that "Beverly Hills 90210" faced was its title. Touted as the story of two teen siblings from the Midwest adjusting to high school life in this storied locale
after their father was transferred, it sounded like "The Walsh Twins Meet Glitter and Glitz," as provided by its executive producer, that schlock- and glitzmeister himself, Aaron Spelling.
Subsequently, Fox attempted to play down the Hollywood connection, even trying to get people to refer to the show as "90210," which is the Beverly Hills ZIP code. And this has turned into a much more substantive show than its title would indicate.
The question it faces -- and this is a question faced by many Fox shows -- is whether it can appeal to anyone other than the teen-age audience. Fox is trying to play with the big boys and, though it might eschew older viewers, needs more than just teens it it's going to attract the advertising revenues necessary to pay the freight for network-quality first-run programming. This summer run beginning tonight is clearly an attempt to get some "Cheers" viewers to switch over from the reruns and check out "Beverly Hills 90210."
When its season ended in the spring, the Walsh family decided to turn down an offer to return to Minnesota and stay in Beverly Hills. Brenda had just had sex with her boyfriend on their prom night and, in the show's cliffhanger, was scared that she was pregnant.
"That's one time they didn't listen to me," Doherty said of the decision by Brenda to have sex, an event that was depicted in an overly romantic way and with no nod to any birth control device.
"The show has enough characters that are sexually active. I don't think Brenda should have become one of them," she said.
Though no previews of tonight's show were made available, from descriptions it sounds as if Brenda might come to regret her decision to lose her virginity during this hour. So maybe the producers did pay attention to Doherty.
What Fox has to find out this summer is if anyone other than teen-age girls will pay attention to "Beverly Hills 90210."