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March 13, 1992, Friday

Nickelodeon's 'Clarissa' smashes gender barrier

Paula Parisi
The Hollywood Reporter

A blonde tomboy in jeans is to young male viewers what honey is to the bee, according to basic cable kids' network Nickelodeon, which has found tremendous crossover ratings success in "Clarissa Explains It All."

The show's popularity with viewers of the opposite sex debunks the broadcast network myth that "boys won't watch girls" and raises questions about the drawing power of female leads, and the portrayal of young women in programming.

"Broadcasters will readily give a show to Dennis the Menace, the Beaver, Fred Savage. What's wrong with that picture?," asks Nickelodeon vice president programming Herb Scannel.

"They're looking at serving the needs of males, because the thinking is 'Oh, the girls will watch anyway.' What kind of community thinks like that? A male community," said Action for Children's Television president Peggy Charren.

But Scannel said "Good TV is not about who likes boys and who likes girls, but about good writing and good acting."

The proof is in the ratings. Some 70 percent of viewers ages 2-11 are male, only 30 percent female, the programmer said, adding that in Nick homes the live-action sitcom is drawing a higher concentration of males ages 6-17 than either "Beverly Hills, 90210" or "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."

But the 14-year-old Clarissa, played by New York stage actress Melissa Joan Hart, is more than just a pretty face, according to Scannel. "She's strong, with a strong point of view, a fact we underscore by having her talk directly to the camera."

The keen young ingenue is also atypical in that she "isn't ditzy or fawning over football players, like most young girls you see on TV," said Scannel, citing one recent episode in which she develops a crush not on a rock star or sports hero, but on a local weatherman.

Plots revolve in good part around the teen's angst-ridden relationship with her younger brother, Ferguson (Jason Zimbler). In one installment, the irrepressible flower of young womanhood prepares to box with the school bully for picking on her pint-sized sibling.

A hefty dose of Paintbox effects gives the program a cutting-edge look.

"I think it's teriffic that the show has a female as the main character. She's sort of with it, which makes it an attractive program for today's young viewers," said Charren, who noted the show "tackles issues" of interest to males and females. "She doesn't have a wardrobe that I expect to see in every trendy boutique, but hey, nothing's perfect," the programming activist added.

Writer Lynda Obst, who penned the screenplay for the gal tale "This Is My Life," now in theaters, cites a shortage of female superheroes as proof of gender discrimination in the children's programming departments.

The only other new kids' show spotlighting a female is Walt Disney Television Animation's "Disney's the Little Mermaid," coming to CBS on Saturday mornings next fall.

Last year ABC canceled Roseanne Arnold's animated Saturday-morning series "Little Rosie" after the actress refused to incorporate "more boys" into the plot, her spokesman confirmed.

"The network wanted her to add little boys. She's a feminist, and she has a point of view, and that just didn't work for her," said publicist David Brokaw.

"There's a tyranny of male-constructed feminine ideals that have nothing to do with female ideals," Obst said, noting that in the feature film domain, an increase in women directors, like "Life's" Nora Ephron, could counter that.

Perhaps surprisingly, "Clarissa" is the creation of a man, Mitchell Kriegman, and is produced by Thunder Pictures in association with Nickelodeon.

While he wouldn't cite exact ratings, Scannel did note that "Clarissa" is pulling numbers 33 percent higher than the channel average in its usual Sunday 12:30 p.m. time slot, and as much as 83 percent higher on its replays. Roughly one-third of its audience is over 18 years old, he said.

The network recently placed its second 13-episode order on the show, which premiered last summer, and plans to order another 13 before the year ends, according to the exec.

Scannel thinks the performance of "Clarissa" might open other programmers' eyes to the fact that femmes aren't fatal when it comes to ratings.

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