Why the ABC teen drama was grounded for a year

By EW Staff
Updated September 09, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT
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I am so grateful the show is on the air. I don’t mean grateful like I’m slobbering, but I didn’t know that it was necessarily going to happen,” says Winnie Holzman, the creator and coexecutive producer of My So-Called Life. The critically acclaimed drama series, about life as filtered through the eyes of a moody, self-absorbed (i.e., real-life) 15-year-old girl, premiered on Aug. 25 and airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. But ABC’s yearlong search to find a fitting berth on its schedule is a drama all its own.

The producers — the same team that made thirtysomething — showed the pilot to ABC in April 1993. The network considered debuting the show the following fall but instead held it as a mid-season replacement. By May this year, eight more episodes were ready. ABC hinted Life would be a summer show-but a teen-size identity crisis had set in: Was My So-Called Life suited for teens—or for thirtysomething devotees? If it was for teens, was the drama too dark and obsessive and un-Blossom-like for an 8 or 9 p.m. time slot? If aimed at adults (at, say, 10 p.m.), would the adolescent’s-eye view sustain the interest of an older audience?

While philosophers dithered, the series sat on the shelf. Meanwhile critics, who received review tapes in January, sent out the word that My So- Called Life was powerful. Affecting. Excellent. If only ABC would let viewers see it.

”Ideally, (the best time is) 9 p.m. against magazine shows,” says coexecutive producer and director Scott Winant, ”but that was impossible because ABC has successful shows at 9. The slot we got was the only slot left.”

”It was like being at JFK with no place to land,” adds Holzman. ”There was no way I could get picky; I’m so glad it’s not opposite Seinfeld!” Even so, Winant notes, ”A large portion of our (target) audience watches Mad About You,” which airs on NBC opposite Life‘s first half hour. ABC defends its scheduling decision by citing Beverly Hills, 90210, which also airs at 8. ”(Life‘s) appeal clearly is to teens and to young adults and young women,” says Alan Sternfeld, senior vice president of program planning and scheduling, ”and that audience is more available at 8 p.m.”

Holzman, for one, scoffs at the worries that the ”darkness” of Life may be too much for early-hour viewers. ”In my house, I notice that very upsetting things are on at 6, 7, 7:30,” Holzman observes. ”There’s a show called Hard Copy and one called Inside Edition—bleak, horrific shows about mass murders and whores and drug overdoses. And they call my show brooding?”

Claire Danes, the 15-year-old who plays lead character Angela Chase, puts the whole chess game of TV scheduling in perspective with get real eye- rolling. ”I don’t really watch television, because nothing has sparked my interest necessarily,” she says, ”and I didn’t watch thirtysomething as a kid, because it was too old for me. Angela would probably watch My So-Called Life and think, ‘Wow, that girl and I have so much in common.’ She’d probably rag on 90210 with her friends.”

But wouldn’t the creators of thirtysomething shoot for more than 90210’s teen fans? In the hyperarticulate style of their previous success, series executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick ponder their ideal viewer: ”Our core audience is someone who is 16 years old and 38 years old,” says Herskovitz.

”I think there are a lot of 38-year-olds who still think they’re 16-year- olds,” adds Zwick. ”I think we’re all indelibly marked by that high school experience. There’s a whole literature of movies and novels that tries to speak to that, and some of those novels are among the touchstones of our lives.”

Despite the favorable attention Life has received so far, history keeps the two men wary. ”It’s instructive to look at thirtysomething,” says Herskovitz. ”There was so much written about thirtysomething when it first went on the air that-” ”That we started with the (biggest ratings) we ever had,” Zwick interjects, ”and went progressively downhill!” ”It’s possible that a similar thing will happen here,” Herskovitz says. ”I’m daring to believe we’re going to at least get a lot of people sampling it.”

As it turned out, the premier episode got less of a sampling than the producers may have desired: The show pulled a quiet 8.7 rating and a 16 share (it did slightly better in the second half than the first, so maybe teens phoned favorable reviews to friends at 8:30), finishing an unspectacular 48th for the week. Still, ABC’s Sternfeld is not concerned. ”Since school is not in session, the ability of word of mouth to spread is not as great as, say, (in) September,” he counsels. ”This show could have gotten anywhere from a 12 to a 24 share, so this is basically in the middle of the widest range of our expectations. We’re encouraged and we’ll keep promoting.”

Perhaps the ideal promotional campaign for My So-Called Life would make use of an observation by Ed Zwick, who offers the final word on the wrangling over the show: ”I have a friend who describes Hollywood as ‘high school with money,’ ” he says. ”You can reference a lot of life that way.”

My So-Called Life

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