Mix attractive high schoolers with loads of documentary footage and voila — it’s ”American High,” Fox’s new critically hailed but ratings challenged summer reality series. Described by its creator as a nonfiction version of ”My So-Called Life,” ”American High” follows 14 teenage students in Highland Park, Ill., an affluent suburb of Chicago.
But despite heaps of media attention, the show’s debut a week ago lured a disappointing 4.3 million viewers — down from the 5 million who watched Fox’s lead in program (a repeat of ”King of the Hill”) and barely one fourth of the 17.5 million people who watched CBS’ ”Big Brother.” Still, ”American High”’s creator, Oscar nominated documentarian RJ Cutler (”The War Room”), says he isn’t discouraged — at least not yet. ” Obviously we wish more people had tuned in,” Cutler tells EW.com. ”But it’s absurd to compare us to ‘Big Brother,’ which has a ratings juggernaut [”Survivor”] as a lead in.”
True, ”Big Brother” may have benefited from ”Survivor” mania, but of the 27.4 million who tuned into the island castaways, only some 17.5 million viewers stayed for ”Brother.” That’s nearly 10 million people who bailed out of CBS after the tribal council voted. So where did those channel surfers go at 9 p.m. last Wednesday, if they weren’t watching ”Big Brother”? According to TV analyst Marc Berman of Mediaweek.com, the post ”Survivor” crowd switched to all channels BUT Fox. ”Every other network, even UPN, went up after ‘Survivor’ ended,” Berman says, citing the numbers for ABC’s ”Drew Carey” (up 102 percent from the previous hour’s program), NBC’s ”The West Wing,” (up 18 percent), UPN’s ”Voyager,” (up 57 percent), and WB’s ”Young Americans,” (up 30 percent). Meanwhile, ”High” fell 16 percent. But that’s not surprising when you consider that ”High” is a novel series. ”This is a new kind of show — it’s not ‘Real World,’ it’s not quite ‘Big Brother,’ and people don’t know what to make of it,” Berman says. ”Any time a network tries something new, it’s going to have to be patient, because familiarity — not innovation — breeds ratings.” That’s why he says it’s not time to sound a death knell for ”High”: ”To be honest, you can’t really make a fair assessment in one, or even two, weeks.”
So ”High” — whose second installment airs Wednesday night at 9 p.m. — may still have a chance to make the grade. According to Nielsen ratings, the show’s viewership dropped off only 3 percent the second half hour, meaning those who watched liked what they saw. Even more gratifying for Cutler is the response to the show via its website. ”The feedback has been unbelievable,” he says. Most of the online interest comes from teenagers impressed by Brad, a senior who frankly discusses his homosexuality in the first episode. ”There are gay kids all over the country discussing their experiences on the site because of Brad,” Cutler says proudly. ”What’s gone on in just a week is fabulous.”
And Fox is showing signs of treating ”High” like a potential winner: The network reaired the first installment Tuesday night, a tactic Berman thinks will pay off: ”It’s a good ploy, because a lot of people may not know what the show actually is,” he says. ”Hopefully Fox will get more eyeballs and generate word of mouth this way.” If ”High” can create a large enough fan base, Fox — which helped usher in the wave of reality TV programming with its long running show ”Cops” — will have its own youth oriented reality franchise. But before Cutler and company make plans to take their camera crews to another American high school, Berman says Fox must commit to promoting the show’s freshman season the way the network pushed ”Beverly Hills, 90210” 10 years ago. ”’ 90210′ initially did not have a big audience, ” recalls Berman. ”It started out with a slow, slow first season, but then eventually it picked up steam, thanks to Fox’s constant advertising. Fox needs to do the same for ‘High.”’
That sounds good to Cutler, who says he’s sure ”American High” could become a huge hit: ”If you want a sensationalistic TV game show, you can choose ‘Big Brother,’ but if you want to see the power of real life stories in their most dramatic form, you can check out ‘American High.”’ Or just go to the mall.
Read our interview with ”American High”’s Morgan Moss.