TV season sets young adults free to work and play in the big city A New Circle of Friends

September 03, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

One of the biggest demographic shifts in the history of network television is about to take place, and many baby-boomer viewers are not going to know what hit them.

Twenty-five years of feeling important when they watched prime-time network television -- because most of the shows were about people like them -- will be coming to an end for boomers as the new television season begins this month.

There are still going to be series for fortysomethings in the new season -- such shows as "Murphy Brown," which heads into its last year on CBS, and Steven Bochco's new "Murder One" on ABC. But the dominant theme this fall is youth.

In fact, there are so many new series about young people living in big cities, looking for love, struggling in the workplace and relying on a close circle of friends for cafe latte and sympathy that they are almost indistinguishable. By my count, 18 of the 34 new series from ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox fit the young-friends formula in one way or another.

The conventional wisdom says the ratings success of NBC's "Friends" explains all these new series. The Thursday night sitcom about six young friends in New York finished eighth among the more than 100 prime-time shows in its freshman season last year, according to A. C. Nielsen. Even its theme song -- "I'll Be There for You," by the Rembrandts -- is a hit.

Given the networks' history of compulsively imitating last year's hits when creating next year's new shows, the "Friends" analysis seems a sound one -- especially when you couple it with a growing insistence by Madison Avenue that the networks kowtow to the first law of television advertising: Younger demographics equals more advertising dollars.

"In simple dollars and cents, the younger demographic brings in more money -- period. To ignore that is stupid," is the way Leslie Moonves, the new entertainment president of CBS, put it when asked to explain his network's conspicuous shift from courting baby boomers in recent years to wooing 18- to 34-year-olds this fall.

NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield agrees about the growing importance of young demographics, saying, "The way [for a network] to stay healthy is to hit the desired demos for the advertisers."

But Littlefield adds that it would be a mistake to explain what's going on this fall by saying everybody is simply imitating "Friends" in hopes of winning younger viewers.

"Is the success of 'Friends' a factor here? To some extent," Littlefield says. "But it's a lot more complicated than saying a show like 'Caroline in the City' is just a rip-off of 'Friends.' There are all sorts of factors involved in a network schedule, and I think you have to go beyond such a simplistic explanation."

Littlefield has a point. If creating new shows is only a matter of imitation, why aren't there any new doctor dramas this year? NBC's "ER" was an even bigger hit in its rookie season last year than "Friends," finishing second among all prime-time series.

The cultural explanation

The "Friends" explanation results from an economic analysis of the new season. But while the first answer to almost every question about the medium is a dollars-and-cents one, television is also about culture. Prime-time television is a web of stories, characters and places created in the dream factories of Hollywood and accepted or rejected by viewers who use television to find pleasure and make sense of their lives.

A cultural analysis of these new series reveals a deeper pattern -- one that speaks about the larger programming cycles and recurring narratives on television.

That pattern involves a young woman coming to the big city, trying to make it in the workplace, looking for love and finding support among friends. More specifically, it has the young woman working in media, having a sidekick as a foil, and being of a background that results in humor based on the collision of her refined sensibilities with the hustle of her workaday world.

Sound familiar? It should. It's a pattern we've seen before in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which debuted in 1970 and hooked millions of fresh-out-of-college baby boomers on prime-time television. Are the networks trying to re-imagine Mary in hopes of bringing a new generation of viewers into the tent of prime-time television?

Fred Barron, the executive producer of "Caroline in the City," a sitcom starring Lea Thompson as a young cartoonist living in New York, said "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was the model for his sitcom. He admits, however, that he's not surprised by the comparison to "Friends," since his show is part of NBC's blockbuster Thursday lineup.

"In terms of what we're trying to draw on, it sounds retro, but we all love the old 'Mary Tyler Moore Show,' " Barron says. "We're looking at kind of a Mary of the '90s here."

Lots of '90s Marys

This fall, the list of contenders to be "Mary of the '90s" is a long one.

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