ABC goes on-line for 'So-Called Life'

January 19, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert is going on-line tonight to talk with fans of "My So-Called Life" about the network's decision to take the series off the air after its Jan. 26 episode.

As part of a rapidly expanding movement in the television industry to use computers to sample viewer opinion, Harbert will sign on to America Online after tonight's show to answer questions from AOL subscribers.

"My So-Called Life," a one-hour drama, airs at 8 p.m. on WMAR (Channel 2).

"I've gone on-line a few times anonymously this season," says Harbert. "But I can't do it very much, because I get addicted to it and just stay there for hours. And then my wife gets mad when I don't come to bed."

Tonight's visit to the information superhighway by ABC's head of programming won't be anonymous. ABC is trying to score some promotional points off it.

"This rapidly growing interactive technology has already allowed us to offer our audience unprecedented access to information about ABC's programs and stars, enhancing the overall television viewing experience," says Kathleen Dillon, an ABC vice president for new technologies. "Now we are providing them with a rare opportunity to converse with one of the network's top decision makers."

The main reason Harbert is going on-line tonight is to respond to a computer campaign to save "My So-Called Life," the critically acclaimed series about teen angst, starring Claire Danes and Baltimore native Bess Armstrong.

The series is produced by Winnie Holzman and the Emmy-Award-winning team of Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, "thirtysomething" fame.

The campaign, born in cyberspace after ABC announced in December it was going to put the show into hiatus, is called "Operation . . . Life Support." It's the first on-line lobby created to save a television show.

The group's original goal was to use the Internet and major commercial on-line services to appeal to ABC to keep the show on the air, says Steve C. Joyner, co-founder of the campaign. The group is now aiming its effort at viewers, urging them to watch the last two episodes and message ABC -- on-line or in writing -- demanding that the show be renewed.

"We've generated more publicity for 'My So-Called Life' in a month than ABC has all season," says Joyner, a free-lance writer.

"My So-Called Life," watched by about 10 million viewers each week, regularly finishes among the bottom 20 shows in the A.C. Nielsen ratings. Joyner believes the show's poor ratings result from insufficient support from ABC.

Harbert acknowledges that 10 million is a lot of people, but "it's not so many by our standards."

By comparison, the hit ABC show "Home Improvement" is watched by more than 30 million people each week, according to Nielsen figures.

Harbert says his time on-line in recent weeks has been "illuminating."

"It's just the way they go through scenes that they love in such detail," he says of the people exchanging messages. "There's such passion for this character or that character."

Harbert added, though, that ABC "does not want to put out the wrong message . . . that any of these fan groups are going to do a big job of swaying the network one way or the other."

The America Online keyword for ABC Online is "ABC." The e-mail address for "Operation . . . Life Support" is (SAVEMSCol.com).

CBS and NBC are also on American Online. Their keywords are "CBS" and NBC."

All three networks have had stars and programmers on-line to talk to viewers this season.

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