Look who's watching the WB

A question for jamie Kellner, chief of the WB: Whaddayagonna do now that your little frog is becoming a prince?

The blossoming of the WB has been the big television story of this season, powered by the freshman hit "Felicity" and returning teen favorites "Dawson's Creek" and "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer." In a TV universe awash in options, not only has the WB been the only network to expand its audience, it did so by a whopping 20 percent over the past year.

This upstart netlet (not full-fledged yet) has based its winning strategy on tenaciously targeting teens, a tactic that has allowed its nine hours of weekly programming to win prime-time viewers from fellow netlet UPN. Some of its most popular shows have even managed to tie NBC and occasionally beat ABC. Not bad for a four-year-old. Now, it is set to sail into spring on the surprise strength of another, quite different show. The sleeper hit from Aaron Spelling, "7th Heaven," about a family headed by a minister, has begun to garner the kind of rave ratings that were previously delivered by strictly teen-targeted shows.

The one-hour drama (Mondays, 8-9 p.m.), only recently languishing at No. 103 on the charts, has begun to deliver the WB's highest-ever rating for any of its shows. The Feb. 8 episode was watched by the same number of households as watched NBC's "Suddenly Susan" and "Mad About You."

'Hip but earnest' hallmark

A fan as well as a "student" of "7th Heaven," Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, says the show is a sign of the times and the key to WB's success. "7th Heaven," he notes, is a skillful blend of where TV has been and where it's going. "[It] is managing to be both really hip with the 13-to-college-age group, but also something 44-year-old parents of 10-year-olds are watching, sometimes even when the 10-year-olds aren't."

The professor says he sees a generation of viewers who are tired of the ironic, cynical attitudes of a "Seinfeld" and are ready for sincere, but contemporary shows. This mix of hip-but-earnest is the hallmark of almost all the WB's winning new shows, most particularly "7th Heaven."

"It's conceived and written in a way that almost no show has been able to do," Thompson reflects, "cashing in on the sincerity of the characters, but never allowed to collapse into the saccharine nature of other family shows."

WB chief Kellner watches the show with his wife and son and is not embarrassed to say that he often has a knot in his throat at the end of the show. "The fact that it's a minister but not a preachy kind of show has allowed all kinds of people to embrace the show and its values," muses the former Fox executive, adding that by that he includes a love of family "in a way that's not offensive." With a nod to the broader appeal of "7th Heaven," the 50-something Kellner nonetheless affirms that his target 18-to-34 audience is "set in stone."

That doesn't mean the WB won't appeal to older viewers, he adds, but suggests that the network will aim for more viewers in the 18-to-34-year-old category.

While the WB has yet to turn a profit, the five-year plan projects positive cash flow in two years. "Our goal is to be the No. 1 network among viewers age 18 to 34," says Kellner.

The WB picked up the scent of its teenage target from Fox, the first breakaway network to challenge the traditional three: ABC, CBS, and NBC. In fact, Kellner honed his skills attracting a youthful audience at Fox before he moved to co-found the WB under majority stake holder Time-Warner. He points out that Fox achieved its fourth-network status by appealing to an underserved group.

"The younger people are the ones who were really disregarded," he notes, adding that the decision by Fox to broaden its reach was what triggered his exit. "I disagreed completely with that as a long-term strategy ... [WB's] goal is to remain median age, under 30."

For advertisers, 12-to-34-year-old viewers are a prime target and a one-season doubling of WB ad revenues is a reassuring sign about the decision to target youthful audiences. But as any TV executive can confirm, targeting and actually attracting audiences are two entirely different actions. Good talent is critical. Joss Whedon is the executive producer of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer." He points to "Dawson's Creek" creator, Kevin Williamson, and says, "There are so few shows about teenagers ... where they really sing," he observes. He says he believes Williamson has "raised the bar in terms of the intelligence of these characters."

"Kids WB!," targeting the next generation, is also an important part of the WB strategy. "I want the kids to be the feeder tube," explains Mr. Kellner, in noting the ratings success of the Saturday lineup, which topped both ABC and Fox this past Saturday, March 15.

Is it realistic enough?

The strategy is not without its detractors, however.

George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that audiences are losing out.

"TV is no longer a medium, it has become the environment for our children," says the scholar. He goes on to explain that the world as portrayed by television becomes so narrow and consumed with adolescent angst and sexuality, it creates a distorted image of the world.

Beyond that, Professor Gerbner says, the sanitized, racially homogeneous universe of television teaches children "the wrong lessons about the world."

Kellner disputes the notion that the shows don't deal realistically with the world. "If you know that 60 to 70 percent of teens are having sex," he suggests, "and you put shows on that suggest they're not, they won't be believed." The difference, he offers, is that in WB shows, the writers try to provide information, so that the characters have choices. "We are not out there creating story lines glorifying sex," he adds firmly. "We are trying to show a balanced sexual situation with some information."

The WB shows take this mission one step further, offers Syracuse Professor Thompson. "It's giving a vocabulary to the teenage wasteland," he says, adding that while it may not reach the vernacular of a Dante, it's "beginning to define the problems of teens in a way they haven't [been before]."

All of which points to a simple response to the question posed of Kellner at the start: What's a CEO to do? Answer: Find the girl who kissed WB mascot Michigan J. Frog and put her in a show.

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