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Posted at 4:51 a.m. EST Wednesday, January 26, 2000



Los Angeles Daily News

Television has more or less ignored 8- to 14-year-olds as a programming target.

It was Sesame Street and Mister Rogers or it was Beverly Hills, 90210, with little in between for the tween-agers.

That suddenly has started to change in a big way thanks mostly to cable, which recognizes an underserved audience segment when it sees one, even though NBC's 2 1/2-year-old Blossom probably deserves credit for sparking what has become a legitimate tweener trend.

In the past six months, a production boom has erupted in shows that address the emotional hazards of being a tween in language they can understand and capturing the complexities, confusion and craziness of those important years.

The sudden tween interest can be pegged in large part to the existence of specialized cable channels like Nickelodeon, which runs two weekly tween-aimed shows on SaturDAY, nights in Clarissa Explains It All (at 8) and Roundhouse (8:30) and a third -- Fifteen (12:30 p.m. Sunday) -- that aims only slightly older.

Showtime also features its own weekly tweener shows in Ready or Not and Criss Cross that aired throughout the winter and spring months and will return to the cable channel with reruns in September and new episodes in October.

Then there is the hourlong tween-themed PBS series, In the Mix (5 p.m. Saturday, WVIZ-Channel 25).

ABC has plans at midseason to unveil a tween's-eye-view of the world, My So-Called Life.

The forgotten group is forgotten no more. Their unique take on life finally is getting its overdue notice.

If there is a central focus to these tweener shows, it is that puberty is no joke. It is a time of great anxiety, of family hassles, grade-school crushes, skin devastation and temptations tied to peer pressure. They start talking back to their parents and struggle to find a niche in the world.

It's a time of life that Alyse Rosenberg, the 31-year-old creator, writer and director of Showtime's Ready or Not, sees as holding great potential for honest and realistic storytelling.

Adults have for too long lacked an understanding of what kids aged 8 to 14 care about, are obsessed with,' Rosenberg says. Even if television has tried to understand the mind-set, it's always glossed over the issues, made a joke of them.'

Ready or Not treats the arrival of a girl's first menstrual period as the sensitive issue it is, Rosenberg says. And an outbreak of acne is depicted with the same end-of-the-world horror as it inspires in real tweens.

The series also deals with such family traumas as divorce and separation and loss. Religion is also a prime topic. But the predominant focus is everyDAY, socialization.

What affects this age group most seems to be social isses,' Rosenberg says. Things like, you know, someone liked me, someone didn't.'

Despite all the talk that kids toDAY, grow up more sophisticated and are asked to develop earlier, that doesn't make them any better prepared to deal with life at this age than the previous generations, Rosenberg says.

They have more stuff to deal with at an earlier age, but emotionally they're still just kids,' Rosenberg says. They have the vocabulary and the jargon, but they haven't lived it and aren't mature enough to understand it. All it is is imitative behavior.'

Herb Scannell, Nickelodeon's senior vice president of programming who agrees that kids are still kids no matter the age they live in, says their differing maturity levels makes tweens a difficult, somewhat perplexing target.

Half of them come home, watch cartoons and are still living in kiddiedom,' Scannell says, while the other half goes out and listens to Axl Rose and is very much living in teendom.'

Nickelodeon came up with its Snick (SaturDAY, Night Nick) lineup of series that include Roundhouse, Clarissa Explains It All and Are You Afraid of the Dark? that are designed to appeal to tweeners on both sides of the social fence.

Roundhouse, in particular, really addresses what's on tweens' minds,' Scannell says. It gives them a chance to laugh at some of the harder parts of their lives.

This age group is trying to deal with changing bodies, hormones veering out of control and befuddlement at where they stand in their family structure and the outside world. That's no small potatoes.'

Says Sue Castle, executive producer of PBS' In the Mix: What kids need at this age is the knowledge that they aren't the only one feeling what they're feeling. Shared experiences are extremely valuable for kids. It gives them a sense of balance.'

These tween shows also scotch the idea that adolescents are all dabbling in drug use or sales, engaging in sexual experimentation and contemptuous of authority, Castle says.

The reality is that teens only make news when they get into trouble,' Castle says. But the overwhelming majority of kids are good and want to be responsible. They get an unfair rap. They are articulate and care about the issues. We try to speak to them and their real concerns, not the media myths.'

The tween trend is largely a cable phenomenon because the networks have yet to loosen their guidelines to allow regular frank discussion of such issues as adolescent sex, alcoholism and emotional well-being.

Also, Nickelodeon's Scannell says, tweens are not a top priority for advertisers. Their demographic targeting is designed to attract the audience segments ages 2 to 11, 12 to 24 and 12 to 34.

The kids who are (ages) 9 to 14 are not a natural breakout,' Nickelodeon's Scannell says. There aren't a lot of advertisers who will place a buy on such a small, unidentifiable group.'

These are real people with real issues,' says Showtime's Ready or Not creator/director/writer, Rosenberg. Just because they provide a targeting dilemma doesn't give TV an excuse to pretend they don't exist.'

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