NEW YORK -- In a shift from its traditional slate of fictional dramas for young people, ABC has signed a deal to have Oprah Winfrey produce and host all the network's "Afterschool Specials" for next season, including two talk show-style "town meetings," a documentary and an original drama.
The specials will be created by Ms. Winfrey's Chicago-based Harpo Productions. She also will introduce the repeat telecasts of previously produced "Afterschool Specials" that will air during the 1992-'93 season.
Ms. Winfrey's highly rated talk show, which is seen on all but one of ABC's owned and operated stations, airs in the same time period as the "Afterschool Specials" on many ABC stations.
"The audience is obviously there for Oprah at that time, and I would think that the affiliates will be pleased that, in one way or another, they'll get Oprah," said Ame Simon, director of "Afterschool Specials" for ABC. "We wanted to do a deal with Oprah, and we wanted to do something new with the specials to bolster the audience levels. We have a lot of respect for what she does, and we think the new shows will provide a new way of dealing with issues."
The "Afterschool Specials," which have won 64 Emmy Awards over the past 20 years, traditionally have dealt with issues of concern to young teens -- from dating to peer pressure to alcohol abuse and AIDS -- in the form of one-hour dramas, produced by a variety of independent producers, with no single host.
Although intended as programming for young people, the specials have been drawing an older audience, Simon said. "There are teens in the audience," she said, "but the bulk of the audience is 18-to 34-year-old women, which makes sense when you consider that the 'Afterschool Specials' air after [the ABC soap opera] 'General Hospital.' "
"Oprah's a sensitive person, and these programs could be good," said Peggy Charren, head of Action for Children's Programming, an advocacy group. "What worries me is not that ABC is doing these shows but that they are not doing dramas. When ABC began 'Afterschool Specials' 20 years ago, they started producing wonderful dramas for children and preteens that are still popular on home video.
"When they became more issue-oriented, their demographic inched upward. These new shows with Oprah may reach teen-agers, but they won't have much shelf-life. I can't imagine that they'll be the kinds of programming that people will want to rent and see some years from now."