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Friday Night Fight Over Young Viewers

November 20, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ABC's youth-oriented Friday lineup of "TGIF" comedies reaches its 10th anniversary next year--old age by television standards, and apparently time enough in the mind of network officials to start seeking a little respect.

That's in part because the "TGIF" block--anchored by "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" and "Boy Meets World"--along with ABC's "Wonderful World of Disney" franchise, are rare islands where children and teenagers watch the major broadcast networks, as that audience increasingly gets siphoned away by newer alternatives, including cable and the fledgling WB network.

Beyond the ABC programs cited, the only network shows currently cracking the Top 20 among kids age 2 to 11 during prime time, according to Nielsen Media Research, are Fox's "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill" and "Guinness World Records: Primetime," as well as NBC's "Friends" and "Jesse." Ten Nickelodeon series round out the list, despite the cable channel's availability in only about three-quarters as many homes as those broadcasters.

"Sabrina," "Boy Meets World" and "The Simpsons" also lead rankings among teenagers (age 12 to 17, as measured by Nielsen), where the Top 20 includes five WB dramas: "Dawson's Creek," "7th Heaven," "Charmed," "Felicity" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Perceptions of the WB as the teen network have irked ABC, which feels its "TGIF" programs haven't received their proper due. ABC Entertainment Chairman Stu Bloomberg said he is "growing weary" of reading about WB's teen success, noting that ABC has successfully revived its once-ailing "TGIF" roster.

"We are the only network . . . that can attract such a large audience, not only of kids and teens but of families," Bloomberg said. "Parents can still sit down with their kids and watch that whole lineup."

"Sabrina" executive producer Paula Hart echoed those sentiments, saying she receives "an awful lot of letters from moms and dads that say, 'I watch the show with my family. Thank you.' . . . There has to be something [on television] that families can watch together again."

In a sense, ABC's success with younger viewers on Fridays and Sundays underscores how much of that audience the traditional networks have lost to channels such as WB, Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network, as economic pressures drove them to focus on the adult demographics advertisers want.

Attracting fewer children and teens doesn't necessarily impact the networks in terms of revenue (virtually all prime-time advertising time, except on children-specific networks, is sold based on viewers 18 and older), but the trend raises questions about what a generation that sporadically watches ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox will view when they grow up.

"We call today's kid viewing 'video democracy,' " said Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon's executive vice president and general manager. "They make no distinction about broadcast versus syndication versus cable."

Indeed, even with ABC's strength among kids on two nights, Nickelodeon--which introduced a new prime-time block called the Nickel-O-Zone in late August--has seen its audience among kids rise 30% this season from 8 to 9 p.m., ranking first among all channels in that hour on a weekly basis.

Because of the financial imperative, ABC emphasizes the notion of "family" viewing, with Bloomberg pointing out that ABC's audience among adults age 18 to 49 is up more than 10% on Friday nights, meaning more parents are watching with their children.

"You can't just get kids and teens. You need to have that [audience] supported by young adults," he said.

"Sabrina," for example, currently averages 13.6 million viewers per week, surpassing such programs as "Ally McBeal," "Cosby" and "Law & Order." Viewers 18 and older account for nearly 60% of that total.

"We beat real shows, much less 'weblet' shows," said Hart, adding that the WB series get more media attention in part because "they concentrate more on their press than we do."

The irony is that the WB, while still embracing its teen success, wants to expand beyond that image, demonstrating that its series can compete effectively in slightly older age brackets.

WB has set its sights on viewers between the ages of 12 and 34, a broad demographic slice especially popular with advertisers such as movie studios, which cater to that crowd with films like "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "The Waterboy." Even so, that allows the network to focus its programming more precisely than most broadcasters.

"There's no question it's a hell of a lot easier to develop when you have a very narrow target, rather than trying to be all things to all people," said WB Entertainment President Garth Ancier.

Still, according to Ancier, the WB's teen image is more perception than reality. While the WB remains the youngest network in terms of audience profile, the median age of its viewers is over 26, underscoring that some adults are watching its shows as well.

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