Teens, young adults catapult Spelling back to the summit

July 14, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- Aaron Spelling is a surprising guy.

For openers, take the turnaround in his image.

Since the 1970s, his name has regularly appeared in newspaper stories followed by a comma and the word schlockmeister.

There was justification for that characterization. As the producer of such shows as "Charlie's Angels" and "Fantasy Island," his work was popular, but it defined much of what many found worst about commercial TV: It was heavily escapist, sometimes sexist and often lightweight in terms of social conscience.

Now, though, there's a new Aaron Spelling dominating the airwaves of commercial broadcast television: Mr. Hip and Cutting Edge. When the new fall season begins, Spelling will have five shows on Fox and NBC. All of them are targeted at teens and people in their 20s, the new demographic darlings of Madison Avenue. And one of them, "Beverly Hills, 90210," which starts its new season tomorrow night, is the hottest show in all of TV.

"I just think the time for the young shows has come," Spelling said in an interview. "There was a time when I went 18 months without a show [on the air]. . . . All I can say is, it's good to be back."

Spelling is more than just back. The slight, white-haired fellow with the quiet voice is the red-hot guru of how to get young people back to the commercial networks.

All of his new shows have that kind of potential. "Melrose Place" has already debuted to high ratings on Fox. Drew Barrymore's "2000 Malibu Road" is being scripted for Spelling by Terry Louise Fisher, who created "L.A. Law." "The Heights," a series about working-class adults just out of high school and the rock band they play in, is one of the most promising new shows on the Fox schedule. And NBC's "The Round Table," an ensemble drama about young professionals starting their careers in Washington, could be the "twentysomething" show for that generation.

Spelling said there is no one secret to making shows that attract young viewers. He believes that while his shows might share a certain look, each is different.

"I think that 'Round Table,' for example, has a lot more realism than '90210,' " Spelling said. "I mean, the young Washington professionals in 'Round Table' don't live in Beverly Hills. They can't call mom and dad when they're in trouble. They are not all wealthy.

"In 'Round Table,' the characters know what they want. How to get it is their problem. I think in 'Melrose Place,' they don't know what the hell they want yet. All they talk about is getting through the next day."

The fact that Spelling wasn't giving away any secrets of his success with young viewers was not too surprising. What was surprising, though, was that instead of basking in the glory of the roll he's on, he introduced an often overlooked failing of his most successful show, "Beverly Hills, 90210," and promised to make amends.

"I learned one hard lesson in 'Beverly Hills, 90210' and I've been apologizing. . . . We do not have a good ethnic mix in '90210.' All my other shows now have that. And I would say if there was anything I learned it was that. That was my mistake and my blame, and, for a guy who's won six NAACP awards, it was really beneath me to do that . . .

"We all live in an ethnic mix society, and to not depict it makes no sense. My problems with '90210' is that to bring that in [once the show was established] would have been to add a token ethnic character, and I just won't do that. . . . When they go to college next year, though, you will see that we will have an ethnic cast in '90210.' "

Such a statement sounds as if Spelling has grown since the days of "Dynasty" and "Love Boat." But the new Aaron Spelling hasn't forgotten how the old Aaron Spelling was treated in the press once his hits had run their course and it looked as if he was about to be put out to pasture and remembered only as a schlockmeister.

During that period before "Beverly Hills, 90210," when he went 18 month without a show, Spelling said he read and reread his "epitaph."

"The headline in Variety said, 'Spelling's Dynasty Dead' -- except Dynasty was not in quotation marks, which hurt my feelings," Spelling said.

"And I've always wanted to take an ad -- I should do this now, but I would never do this -- . . . that would say, 'Spelling's Dynasty Dead.' And underneath that I would write, 'The reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. Signed Mark Twain.' And, then, underneath that I would like to put, 'Mine, too. Aaron Spelling.' But I won't do that."

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