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Can 'Party of Five' survive?

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‘Hey Matthew, marry me!”

They have gathered on this warm evening along a klieg-lit boardwalk in Universal City, Calif., a good thousand of them, on hand to celebrate the release of the Party of Five soundtrack. They squish up against the barriers and security guards, screaming for Matthew Fox, Scott Wolf, and the rest of the cast (”Neve is Hot!”), desperate for a nod, a photo op, or even a body autograph.

There’s just one hitch: A few yards from the fans’ frantic reach, inside the doors of a Sam Goody, the show’s stars are having trouble rallying their youngest cast member, Andrew Cavarno, 4, who’s joy-rolling around the floor in his Sunday best.

”C’mon,” Fox coaxes gently, but Cavarno pays him no mind. Wolf steps in to assist, scooping up his onscreen baby bro and directing his attention to the restless throngs: ”Hey, Andy, see all those people out there? They want us to go meet them.” Cavarno slips Wolf a grin, then wriggles out of his grasp. ”Andy,” Wolf pleads, as the crowd begins to pound on the store windows, ”we gotta go!”

Forgive Cavarno for underestimating the importance of a crazed fan, or not knowing that 10 million of them have already saved his show’s neck from the noose of cancellation. For though PO5‘s Nielsen ratings are very modest (currently ranking 83rd out of TV’s 136 prime-time series in its third season), it owns a rabid audience that its network, Fox, can’t ignore: In the malls, the PO5 stars are clawed at. In the mail room at the show’s studio, Columbia Pictures Television, employees sift through mountains of love letters. On the Internet, PO5 boasts more Web pages than top 20 programs like ER or The Drew Carey Show.

But it’s not just a zealous following. It’s the right kind of zealous following. Inside PO5‘s unassuming ratings lies a silver lining: the young, largely female viewership that advertisers crave. It’s the No. 15 show among 18- to 34-year-old viewers, No. 10 among 18- to 34-year-old women, and No. 12 among 12- to 17-year-old female teens. ”If you want young adults, which is the hardest audience to reach, Party of Five should be one of the top shows on your list,” says Western International Media ad buyer Tim Spengler. Adds Whitey Chapin, VP of broadcast research at rival TN Media: ”You could buy ER or Seinfeld to reach more women, but Party of Five offers one of the best vehicles to get a concentrated audience.” Last month, Dr Pepper kicked off a $15 million promotion with the show, the most elaborate ever on Fox, making PO5 one of the network’s largest revenue-generating shows, at $150,000 per 30-second spot.

But what a strange fit it is. A classy drama with three-dimensional characters tackling real-life issues finds a home on a network teeming with the lascivious (Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place, Married…With Children) and the unexplained (The X-Files, Married…With Children). For the uninitiated, PO5 concerns the traumas and tribulations (suicide, alcoholism, infidelity — and that’s just last month) of the five orphaned, San Francisco-based Salinger siblings: Charlie (Fox), a semi-reformed philanderer who’s trying to run a restaurant, be a father, and enjoy his 20s; Bailey (Wolf), a well-intentioned college freshman who’s reaching point break; Julia (Neve Campbell), a sensitive, bookish high school senior with several romantic debacles under her belt; Claudia (Lacey Chabert), a wise-beyond-everyone’s-years eighth-grade violinist who’d rather forgo puberty altogether; and Owen (Cavarno and twin brother Steven), who spends most of his time off camera. Currently, the show is building to a pair of February sweeps episodes (Feb. 19 and 26) guaranteed to boost Kleenex’s first-quarter sales: Bailey’s drinking problem prompts a heated family intervention.

Powered by these realistically flawed characters, PO5 has become a twentysomething thirtysomething for the ’90s. Like that older-skewing weep-fest, PO5 breeds hotheaded favoritism and hatreds; fans seem to garner as much pleasure in passionately debating the merits of the attractive (albeit utterly self-absorbed) family members as in watching the show. ”I get all worked up over this 17-year-old girl [Julia] who is going through so much of the stuff that I did,” says Melissa Normandin, 23, of Manchester, N.H. ”The other night, my mother and I were watching and she was going off, saying ‘Julia’s a brat,’ and I said, ‘How can you say that? She’s going through this huge emotional upheaval and her friend just died and nobody’s understanding her and her family’s falling apart!’ For a moment, I was totally defending Julia, as if she were really my friend.”

Matthew Fox understands this kind of back-and-forth—he has conflicting feelings about his own character: ”I’ve had some negative responses to Charlie, people coming up to me and saying ‘You’re a dog!’ Everybody, including me, goes, ‘Man, what a loser, what a total flake.”’ But in the next breath comes his defense: ”The whole thing with him losing the restaurant was in no way his fault! He simply started bedding a woman who was a totally vindictive bitch!”

On the other hand, there’s always the danger of becoming a little too attached. Chuckles Wolf: ”My brother went to work the day after the episode where I cheated on Sarah [Jennifer Love Hewitt—his on-screen girlfriend], and his coworkers said, ‘We hate your brother,’ and he was like, ‘That’s just a character he plays on TV.’ And they’re like, ‘We don’t care, we hate him anyway. And we hate you, too!’ People really get wrapped up in their own desires for these characters.”

That passion runneth over to Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Wolf has made two films since beginning PO5; most recently he played a feckless would-be underwear model in The Evening Star. Hewitt, who joined the cast in season 2, has recorded a second CD for Atlantic Records. Last year, Fox and Campbell were selected to whiten their upper lips for those ubiquitous milk ads, a campaign that cannily singles out the hottest young stars of any given moment (their ads followed Friends Jennifer Aniston and Lisa Kudrow’s). ”We don’t go by ratings–we pick people who match our target audience,” says Jay Schulberg of Bozell Worldwide, creative director of the campaign. ”If we can get more young people to drink milk through sex appeal, that’s what we’ll do.” That appeal, plus solid performances in The Craft and Scream (a surprise hit of the Christmas season), have positioned Campbell as one of Hollywood’s top Gen-X ingenues. ”I’m being cautious with my choices. All of a sudden, when you’re thrown all these scripts, you say, ‘Wow, I could really jump at anything—or I could actually think about this,”’ says Campbell, who did jump at hosting Saturday Night Live on Feb. 8.

And yet despite all this—the hardcore fan base, the promising career prospects of the show’s stars, and the warm embrace from the ad community—PO5 isn’t a shoo-in for renewal next season. “I want this show back very badly,” insists Fox Entertainment president Peter Roth. “We just need a crescendo in the numbers and then to sustain those new numbers.”

“They’ve laid down the gauntlet and it’s up to us to deliver,” says PO5 exec producer Amy Lippman. “We know we have a battle ahead.” Then again, that’s nothing new for Party of Five.

What better way to empower young people than to kill off their parents? This was the quirky pitch that Sisters coexecutive producers Lippman and Christopher Keyser began fleshing out in fall 1993. “We were thinking it should be more fun and light, while Chris and Amy really wanted to mine the dramatic side of it,” recalls Fox exec VP Bob Greenblatt, who oversaw the show’s development. “But they were willing to do both, so we said, ‘Go ahead.'”

A cast of virtual unknowns was assembled: Wolf, now 28, who’d guest-starred on Blossom and Saved by the Bell; Chabert, 14, a Star Search junior vocal finalist in 1991; Fox, 30, a regular on the short-lived Freshman Dorm; and Campbell, 23, star of the Canadian TV series Catwalk. Although the PO5 pilot was one of Fox’s highest testing in years—the press hailed it and ABC’s My So-Called Life as two of the best new shows of the 1994 season—the network was so worried, it almost dropped the series. “We didn’t feel it wasn’t right for Fox,” explains Greenblatt. “But we were nervous that it wasn’t quite as high-concept, quite as sexy, quite as cool as 90210.”

While 90210‘s high-concept quotient may be debatable, Greenblatt’s fears were justified. The show debuted in the highly visible Melrose Place lead-out slot (Mondays at 9 p.m.) in September and immediately fell into the Nielsen cellar. Only a few weeks into the season, the writing was on the wall—or, rather, off. Recalling a meeting at Fox, then-Columbia executive VP Jeff Wachtel says: “As we were getting the notes, I glanced over at the schedule board and noticed that PO5 had been taken off its time period and laid on the side. I was looking at this little hole in the board, thinking ‘Oh, man, we’re in trouble.'” Meanwhile, on the set, the cast would sit around on Tuesday mornings, trying to determine if Monday night’s ratings would finally bring down the ax. “It was so frustrating,” recalls Wolf. “You start to think, ‘Am I pouring my heart into something that will be gone next week?'”

Enter John Matoian, who assumed his post as Fox Entertainment president—and PO5‘s knight in shining armor—a few weeks into the show’s first season. If Matoian’s battle cry was a “commitment to quality,” he had a cause celebre with PO5. Remembers Keyser: “When John came in, he said, ‘Look, I’ll give you another chance. I believe in this show. We’ll make some adjustments, we’ll change your time slot, we’ll increase the promotion.'” He kept his word (going so far as to air watch-it-or-we’ll-have-to-yank-it threats), and the cast spent innumerable weekends making state-fair and mall appearances across the country. But nothing—including an episode that received a Humanitas Prize for positive depiction of social values—seemed to work. A time-slot switch, to PO5‘s current placement, following 90210 on Wednesdays, had improved ratings only slightly. By season’s end—months after ABC had shelved My So-Called Life—the show stood meekly at No. 123. “There were days when you said, ‘You can only go so far before you’ll fall on your own sword,'” says Matoian. “But if you ultimately believe that a show delivers, patience is necessary.” And so PO5 became the lowest-rated series in major network prime time to get renewed.

A few weeks into season 2, delivery day seemed a long way off. Numbers still weren’t heating up. The show, however, did ward off CBS’ much-hyped Darren Star series, Central Park West. Then, in December, a Charlie-leaves-his-fiancee-at-the-altar episode grabbed a lot of attention. In January, PO5 shocked the Golden Globe audience by winning for best drama, the lowest-ranked series in history to do so. “We got a phone call from the BoDeans,” says Keyser of the band that recorded the show’s theme song, “Closer to Free.” “They said, ‘Thanks for taking so long to walk to the podium, because they played most of our song and then it went up on the charts.'” A month later, a powerhouse hour in which Julia decides to have an abortion delivered the show its best ratings ever. (Wary of advertiser backlash, the network asked Keyser and Lippman to rework the story so Julia would miscarry before reaching the clinic.) “The show was on a roll,” says Greenblatt. “It was getting more romantic, more adult, a little sexier. There was still a fight internally about the ratings’ not being high enough, but everybody said: ‘We’ve got to have it on the air. It’s expanding how people think of [Fox].'”

Even after an improved second year, few would have blamed the network if it had bailed on PO5 (more than 70 shows with better ratings have been dumped since it hit the air). But Fox had been banking on a niche success—a show that knows its audience and nails it perfectly. “You don’t need to be all things to all people,” reminds Lippman, who, with Keyser, is developing a young-adult drama for Fox set in Seattle that should debut in 1998. “Those shows can become so homogenized, they begin to lose their character.”

And so, in a TV landscape littered with the carcasses of critically lauded but quickly axed family dramas, PO5 has managed to squeak on. Which has as much to do with Fox—perhaps the only network of the Big Four where shows with narrow appeal can survive—as with the quality of the show. “Fox has the great benefit of being able to live with smaller numbers,” notes outgoing ABC Entertainment chairman Ted Harbert, who calls the cancellations of Life and Second Noah two of the most “agonizing” decisions of his career. (Relativity, a family drama that Harbert squired to ABC this season, will most likely be canceled too.) “That’s one thing I’ve always been envious of. Fox can sit with shows until they grow. If Party were on ABC, it probably wouldn’t last.” Warren Littlefield, NBC Entertainment president, agrees: “I’m not sure it fits the category where a large enough group of people go, ‘That’s for me.’ But Fox has a different requirement for success than we do. It was a smart decision to stick with it.”

Whether Fox stays smart remains to be seen. As of this year, PO5 is No. 1 in its time slot with 12- to 17-year-olds and 18- to 34- year-olds. But if Roth (who succeeded Matoian at the beginning of this season) wants to overtake ABC, NBC, and CBS in the next few years, as he’s stated, he may have to trade in niche triumphs for bigger numbers. And like all the networks, Fox must do that by relying on ratings that may not accurately capture its audience. PO5 appeals to viewers not easily measured by Nielsen; how, for example, do you count the groups of 20-or-so college kids glued to tubes on campuses across the country?

Right now network insiders peg PO5‘s chances for a fourth season at better than 50-50, especially given past attempts at filling the post-90210 and –Melrose slots: Models Inc., Kindred: The Embraced, Profit, Lush Life, Party Girl, and Partners all failed. A final decision is expected at the beginning of April, when the show completes this year’s 25-episode order. (In Party‘s place, Fox will air a new Spelling soap, tentatively titled Pacific Palisades, for the remainder of the season.) Until then, Roth is keeping his fingers crossed. “The key to a successful prime-time schedule is balance,” he says, “and Party of Five is an incredibly intelligent series that is unlike anything else on our network. Is it successful for us? Yes. Would we like it to be more successful? Sure.”

And if the plug were pulled? “After three years, it would be hard to say that we haven’t been given a shot,” says Wolf. As for the fans, well, the network might want to think about reserving a riot squad. “If they picketed for Alien Nation, I can’t imagine what Party fans would do,” says Greenblatt. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near here.”

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