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'TGIF'? Well, ABC's Not So Sure Anymore

Television * Family viewing habits have changed, challenging the Disney-owned network's Friday franchise.

April 14, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, parents sat through ABC's "TGIF" block with their kids on Friday nights, watching such comedies as "Full House" and "Family Matters." If the jokes often seemed lame, parents at least felt secure the shows conveyed morals and messages, meaning little tykes weren't going to see anything that would put them in therapy.

After ABC's recent decision to let "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" go to the WB network next fall, however, "TGIF" appears on its last legs--the victim of shifting viewing patterns and a trend toward edgier fare designed to attract an increasingly jaded, been-there-seen-that audience.

ABC officials, who are currently pondering their scheduling plans for next season, declined to elaborate on the status of the "TGIF" franchise. Previously, the network has said it is evaluating its future, but remains committed to offering programs the whole family can watch.

Nevertheless, with "Sabrina" flying the coop and the fate of other "TGIF" series such as "Boy Meets World" in doubt, few anticipate the network will adhere to its current formula.

There is more than a little irony in the gradual dismantling of "TGIF," which has occurred over the last five years--after the network was acquired by the Walt Disney Co., an organization built on the foundation of family movies and TV shows.

Launched as a marketing slogan in 1989, "TGIF" represented one of the first forays by a major network into branding (NBC didn't begin "Must-See TV" until '93), creating a programming block under an over-arching umbrella to make the whole bigger than its individual parts--in the process keeping kids and teenagers perched in front of the tube throughout the evening.

"Full House," which premiered in 1987, served as the crucial anchor in leading off the night, joined two years later by "Family Matters," which became a major hit once Steve Urkel--a guest role played by Jaleel White--was promoted to a series regular and eventually the show's much-imitated star.

"Perfect Strangers" was another component, followed by such shows as "Step by Step" (starring Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers), "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" (featuring Mark Curry) and "Boy Meets World."

"I think it's going to be missed if it indeed goes away," said Michael Jacobs, executive producer of "Boy Meets World" and the earlier "TGIF" show "Dinosaurs."

"In my mind, the younger audience has been terribly hurt. Apart from Nickelodeon, I don't know where the kids now have to go, except reruns, which is unfortunate. 'Edge' is now the favorite word in each development meeting."

Producers and executives assert that the way people watch network TV has changed as the number of homes with multiple TV sets (now three-quarters of all households) and cable distribution keep rising. Instead of sitting down to watch TV with their children, parents began seeking more adult fare, while kids gravitated to Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network and other cable channels dedicated to their interests.

Looking for Hip Urban Comedies

"Parents said basically, 'Look, if you want to watch that, go in your room, we're not going to watch with you,' " said producer Michael Warren, who partnered with "TGIF's" producing patriarchs, Robert L. Boyett and Thomas L. Miller, on "Family Matters," "Step by Step" and "Perfect Strangers." "We were increasingly unable to bring adults to the set."

Because most prime-time advertisers target adults, ABC found its kid-friendly series increasingly difficult to justify if parents weren't going to tune in with them.

ABC's commitment to "TGIF" also began to diminish in the mid-1990s. With ratings down, the network's mandate turned squarely to finding hip urban comedies catering to young adults--the kind of shows then-ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses had championed at NBC, most notably "Friends."

"They sort of became like an auto maker that said, 'We're only going to produce mid-sized cars,' " Warren noted.

The network first sought to adjust "TGIF" by aiming the shows more at teenagers, introducing "Sabrina" and "Clueless," the latter adapted from the hit movie. The former stuck but "Clueless" didn't, eventually finding a home on UPN--an emerging network that was more narrowly directed at the teen audience and could accept lower ratings. In similar fashion, another "TGIF" series, "Sister, Sister," went to the WB.

Even CBS willingly reeled in ABC's "TGIF" castaways, out-bidding the network for "Family Matters" and "Step by Step" in 1997. The strategy failed to work for CBS but nevertheless hurt ABC, whose replacements (the self-explanatory "Teen Angel" and "You Wish," about a hip genie) also bombed.

In retrospect, what may have been the "TGIF" franchise's last gasp was, appropriately enough, "Two of a Kind," which starred Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen--the twins who grew up on "Full House"--under the auspices of Miller, Boyett and Warren. Despite promising initial results, the ratings faded and the show was canceled after one season.

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