Network lineups blossom with girls coming of age

March 13, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

One is a 15-year-old high school student having a hard time with school, boys, parents and the color of her hair.

Another is 12 and wondering if she will ever quit feeling so awkward and out of it.

Two more are 13 and have just made an incredible discovery.

And then there's the turn-of-the-century teen learning about a new way of life as she tries to teach the ABCs in the mountains of rural Tennessee.

Meet the new girls of prime time, arriving on TV screens in coming weeks.

These shows are more than just a programming trend. They mark a major shift on the TV landscape -- away from shows about boys'-coming-of-age experiences, to series that deal with the feelings and concerns of adolescent girls.

It is the kind of change in TV content that often leads to changes in the minds of viewers.

The first of the new girls' TV shows, "Someone Like Me," premieres tomorrow night at 8 on NBC. The sitcom stars 12-year-old Gaby Hoffman as a "well, like, you know, 12-year-old kid," in the words of Hoffman. NBC calls it "a modern-day 'Wonder Years' -- from the girls point of view."

On April 3, CBS premieres "Christy," starring Kellie Martin, formerly of "Life Goes On," as a 19-year-old living at the turn of the century. She leaves her city home to teach others who are less fortunate. TV Guide calls it "a 'Dr. Quinn' for the '90210' crowd."

Also in April, on dates yet to be set, ABC introduces two new series: "My So-Called Life" and "Sister, Sister."

"My So-Called Life" is produced by Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovits of "thirtysomething" fame. The drama series is fifteensomething seen from the feminine side -- life, love and low self-esteem, high-school style, through the eyes of Angela Chase (Claire Danes).

"Sister, Sister" stars real-life twins Tia and Tamera Mowry as fictional twins separated by adoption at birth, who are accidentally reunited at 13. Jackee Harry and Tim Reid play second fiddle to the girls in this sitcom.

Four series might not seem like such a huge change. But it represents a reversal of the male-dominated programming pattern that's lasted some 30 years.

Consider this: Just two years ago, the only girls' coming-of-age show on network TV was NBC's "Blossom." As for the boys' point of view, there were "Wonder Years," "Doogie Howser, M.D.," "Brooklyn Bridge," "Ferris Bueller" and "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" -- to name a few.

With the four new girls' series -- plus "Blossom" on NBC and "Phenom" on ABC, as well as "Avonlea" on the Disney channel and "Clarissa Explains It All" on Nickelodeon -- there will now be eight girls' coming-of-age shows on weekly.

The boys' count, meanwhile, has dropped to only two -- "Fresh Prince" and "Boy Meets World."

"It is a big change," says Barney Rosenzweig, who co-produces "Christy." "There's definitely something in the air about having shows with strong female leads."

Bruce Helford, the creator of "Someone Like Me," agrees.

"There's a new interest in telling the stories of girls on television," he says. "It's an idea whose kind of time has come."

Explaining the change is more complicated than that, say Rosenzweig and others in Hollywood.

First, there's the ratings success of "Blossom" and "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." The strongest motivating factor in Hollywood the drive to imitate a ratings or box office winner.

"Blossom" proved that enough girls will watch a show about a teen-age girl to make it a Top 20 Nielsen hit. And "Dr. Quinn" proved to the networks that women of all ages want to see strong women in leading roles.

The fact is, women make up almost two-thirds of the prime-time network TV audience on any given night. Pleasing women, therefore, is important to most programmers. If they like "Blossom" and "Dr. Quinn," give them more of the same, the logic goes.

Then there's the change in TV programmers themselves. Just as women have moved into decision-making roles in most areas of American corporate life, so have they at the networks. There are more women programmers today than there were 10 years ago.

Rosenzweig, who won numerous awards from women's groups for his "Cagney & Lacey" series, thinks having women as producers and network executives makes a difference.

"One of the reasons there probably haven't been more female coming-of-age stories in the past is that I think a lot of the male executives probably have a very hard time dealing with the blossoming sexuality of a young woman and whatever her sexual fantasies might be.

"We have no trouble at all having the kid from 'The Wonder Years' drooling over some girl and having some semi-lurid fantasy about what might happen with her," he says. "But the fact that a girl might actually think that way, I think, makes men very uncomfortable."

The evolution of "Blossom" is an example of a woman's influence on network programming.

Don Reo, the show's creator, says he wrote "Blossom" in 1989 as yet another boys' story.

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