Young women + old sitcom = big ratings

Watch out, Jay and Dave. When young Americans channel surf late at night, it turns out that many of them are looking for wise-cracking women, not men.

Almost two decades after it first debuted in 1985, "The Golden Girls" is one of the most-watched sitcoms on cable TV among young women. The reruns of the show, which features four women over 50 who live together in Miami, are popular among teenagers and college students, married women, and even single men.

It's an unexpected trend, one that bucks the regular diet of coffeehouses and crime scenes - often devoid of anyone over 40 - that broadcasters offer to woo young audiences. It's not that these teens and 20-somethings don't also watch "Friends" and "Sex in the City," but they find the comedy and characters on "The Golden Girls" irresistible.

"I go to bed with it every night," says Kathy Burns, a 25-year-old from Chicago who grew up watching the show she calls a "classic sitcom" with her mom. "I think a lot of 20-something girls who are single nowadays can relate to it."

On Monday, Lifetime, where the reruns reside, aired a "Greatest Memories" special with the original cast members that was the highest-ranked in the network's history. It also showed the series pilot and the finale, where the quartet is broken up by the marriage of one of the characters. But it's the reruns - airing seven times each weekday - that keep loyal fans tuning in. The 11:30 p.m. episode is the fourth-highest rated sitcom in reruns among women 18 to 34 watching cable; only past episodes of "Friends" and "Seinfeld" rate better. Lifetime receives about 250 e-mails a month from fans, 25 to 30 percent of which are from college students.

"They love it. It's their go-to-bed thing," says Tim Brooks, a Lifetime executive.

For many of today's viewers, the habit started when they were young, watching with their parents or grandparents. Some find the show again in college, planning study breaks around it and watching in groups.

Unlike when they were 10, they get the humor now - and still like the fact that it's delivered by people of an age they don't expect to hear it from. The characters are ones they can relate to, saying that everyone knows someone who is man-crazy (like Blanche), or naive (like Rose), or practical (like Dorothy).

"I think Blanche is so cool," says Matthew Mortellaro, a 23-year-old New Yorker who watched the show religiously with friends before he graduated from college last year. "I bet Blanche would be every dude's favorite because she plays the guy's role in the house.... She just likes to date, hook up - she's not relationship-oriented at all."

Cultural observers suggest a number of reasons why the show resonates with young people. For women, particularly those who are single, it offers a view of a vibrant life as an unattached older adult, images of which can be difficult to find.

"This shows that there's life outside the nuclear family, when you're older, you're not isolated, you're not alone, you're not sick," says Kay Trimberger, a professor of women's and gender studies at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif.

Women viewers say that is what attracts them. But they, and the men who watch, also say "Golden Girls" highlights the role of strong friendships. That, along with the way the show demonstrates how friends can help in dealing with life, is appealing, observers say.

"One thing we see in the show are relationships that don't end, we see these three primary women who are together no matter what. We also see them taking care of each other," and dealing with issues like their sexuality, notes Charlie Dellinger-Pate, an associate professor of media studies at Southern Connecticut State University. "We see them grappling with some of the same issues that a young 25-year-old might," she says.

In fact, says Lifetime's Mr. Brooks, the mature women in the show act more like young women - and even seem younger because of the presence of Dorothy's mother, Sophia (who is beloved by fans for her bluntness).

The idea that young people are enchanted by a show that jokes about menopause may surprise some people, but not the program's veteran actors. Three-quarters of the mail during their 1985-1992 run came from fans in their teens and early 20s, they've said.

"We always used to get touching letters from teenagers who wanted to move in with us because they weren't having such good times at home," Rue McClanahan told TV Guide recently.

With images of mature adults scarce on TV, younger generations are still looking to the show for guidance. Lindsey Ward, a 23-year-old nanny from Newton, Mass., sums up what she and her college friends think: "Someday we all may find ourselves old and alone, and the 'Golden Girls' gives us hope that there is life after 60 - all you need are a few friends."

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