The women of the WB wow audiences -- Katie Holmes, Keri Russell, and Sarah Michelle Geller gain ratings

And to think, only two years ago, the most famous pair of legs on The WB belonged to the network’s corporate mascot, Michigan J. Frog.

Then Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer kicked down the door for strong young women on TV. Soon 7th Heaven‘s Jessica Biel, 16; Dawson’s Creek‘s Katie Holmes, 20, and Michelle Williams, 18; Charmed‘s Shannen Doherty, 27, Alyssa Milano, 26, and Holly Marie Combs, 25; and Felicity‘s Keri Russell, 22, joined Gellar, 21, as WB poster girls, attracting legions of young female fans and millions in ad revenue. Suddenly a struggling network had an identity, and the entertainment biz a burning obsession.

Hollywood execs lusting after young women? Nothing new there. Resting the fate of an entire network on their collective shoulders, however, is a fresher concept. And The WB — one of the few networks to see Nielsen growth this season thanks to its young viewers (the net says two thirds of its audience is under 35) has been savvy enough — to corner the market on smart, youth-directed, female-driven programming. ”Twelve- to 34-year-olds view women differently than do older adults,” explains WB entertainment president Garth Ancier. ”They’ve grown up in a world where women are more empowered. We’re just reflecting that world.”

Ironically, these characters — most of whom are in high school or college — seem more competent and self-confident than their older sisters on other networks, neurotic career women such as Ally McBeal and Veronica Chase. Biel’s Mary ”is a good student who can take on any guy in basketball and win,” says Ancier; Williams’ Jen and Holmes’ Joey are growing up without their parents; Russell’s freshman Felicity is making it on her own in New York City.

So yes, the WB girls are positive role models. But don’t underestimate the power of the superficial: They’re also smokin’ hotties (to use common guy parlance). ”Charmed is a perfect postfeminist girl-power show,” says Milano, one of its three witch sibs. ”Even independent of their special powers, these women are strong, but they’re still feminine and accessible.”

Never ones to miss a moneymaking opportunity, moviemakers have taken note of The WB’s girl-power gold mine, snapping up Gellar for Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer, Holmes for Disturbing Behavior, and Williams for Halloween: H20. Coming attractions include Russell’s Irish romance Perfect Timing, Williams’ Nixon-era comedy Dick, Holmes’ revenge fantasy Killing Mrs. Tingle, and Cruel Intentions, an adolescent adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons with the WB all-star team of Gellar, Creek’s Joshua Jackson, and Selma Blair (whose mid-season series about a New York City teenager, Zoe Bean, will try to translate The WB’s successful female formula to sitcoms).

Of course, Party of Five‘s Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt also made the leap to movie stardom, but there’s a difference: While their TV aliases continue to mope, The WB’s women are kicking butt, literally (in Gellar’s case) and figuratively. ”They’re all fighters,” observes Russell. ”They’re not sitting in their pink bedrooms with their teddy bears. They’re young women who are exploring and experiencing life.” You go, WB girls.

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