Its creator describes the series as a cross between a daytime soap opera, MTV and an after-school special. The executive producer boasts that TV audiences have never seen anything like it.
Welcome to "Tribes," a new half-hour serial from Fox Television Stations Productions focusing on the lives of a group of Southern California teen-agers and geared to catch the teen and pre-teen audience before they begin homework or go out for the evening.
The weeknight series kicks off Monday at 6:30 p.m. on KTTV Channel 11 and on the Fox-owned stations in New York, Chicago, Washington, Dallas, Houston and Boston.
Though other youth-oriented serial dramas are in the planning stages, "Tribes" will be the first to hit the airwaves.
"There is a large teen and young adult population who watches soaps," said Dennis Steinmetz, executive producer of "Tribes" and a veteran of CBS' "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful." "From my experience, what has happened is, whenever school is out, the popularity of daytime genre shows swells considerably. On 'The Young and the Restless,' they would write teen-oriented material during the summer and the Christmas breaks."
Steven Chow, executive vice president of program development for Fox Television Stations Productions, insists, however, that "Tribes" isn't just for teens. "It's about the relationship between teens and their parents," he said.
"I think anyone can watch this," Steinmetz agreed. "The stories are universal. We're taking our teens and using them to tell the stories. We tell stories about teens which affect adults."
As an example, series creator and executive story consultant Leah Laiman cited one plot line in which a mother can't cope with her divorce and starts drinking. The focus, she explained, is not the mother's problems, "it's how children respond to what's happening in their families."
Executives at Fox Television Stations hope that "Tribes" will follow in the footsteps of their previous productions--"Cops" and "America's Most Wanted"--and find a home on the Fox Broadcasting network or be picked up for national syndication.
"We use our TV stations as a laboratory to test out innovative programming," Chow said.
Steinmetz said the Fox stations have given the show a 13-week commitment.
Nevertheless, the station group got cold feet one week before the scheduled premiere of "Tribes" last January and decided to hold the series until now. Fox executives maintained that the show wasn't in trouble; they feared that it would get lost in the competitive February ratings sweeps.
The delay didn't please Laiman, who also is head writer of ABC's popular daytime drama, "One Life to Live."
"I was a little bit upset," she said. "Then I understood. It was a week before sweeps and they were afraid to start a new show. They're very conservative when it comes to advertising dollars."
According to Laiman, though, the delay has put the series at a disadvantage. Most of the 65 episodes will have been completed before the premiere, thus leaving little time to iron out problems. "When it's on the air, you can see things and change them," she explained. "Actors may have certain personality quirks you may want to write in. It's a problem we have to live with."
"Tribes" is produced like a movie-of-the-week. One-third of the series will be shot on location.
"We package five shows, and in some cases six shows, into a group and assign them to a director," said Steinmetz. "We'll block it out like a movie. It's shot very much out of sequence. We also have alternating directing teams and producing teams. We do two location days and three studio days for each five episodes."
Though set in Southern California, Laiman pointed out that "Tribes" is not specifically about Los Angeles or San Fernando Valley teens. Budgetary considerations dictated the Southland location.
"It's a low-budget show," she said. "They couldn't be concerned with whether palm trees grow or what to do about snow in winter. That's why it's California, but it's the part of California that's like the rest of America."
Though it may seem ironic that a series about contemporary teens is written and produced by a group of middle-aged adults, all involved insist that they know what makes today's teens tick.
Laiman is the mother of two grown girls and a toddler. Head writer Trent Jones has teen-age children. Steinmetz, the father of a 21-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter, said he collects material for "Tribes" every day while driving his daughter to and from school.
"We have the experience having been, so to speak, through the wars," Steinmetz said. "I keep abreast of the Billboard music charts. There's a magazine called Sassy which is being distributed to our writing team."
"Tribes" will have its share of comedic moments, the producer noted.
"We're trying to lighten the heaviness of daytime drama," he said. "But we're not going to be escapist. We're telling real stories and hoping the lighter moments come out of those real stories. I don't think kids or teen-agers walk around with the weight of the world on their shoulders all the time. I had a ball when I was a teen-ager."