JENNIFER SPEARS: Teens, AIDS and Serious Talk

Not every TV series aimed at a teen audience is a music video show. USA Network's "Youthquake," which airs Saturdays at 11 a.m., examines subjects ranging from teen suicide to parental problems to the latest fashions to new musical artists.

This Saturday, "Youthquake" will focus on teen AIDS and will include an interview with 20-year-old Steve Morrell, a heterosexual AIDS patient who died earlier this year.

Jennifer Spears, a 28-year-old former performer on "Dance Fever," is the creator and host of the series. She talked about "Youthquake" with Susan King.

What prompted you to decide to do a special episode on teen AIDS?

After meeting with Steve and really doing some research, I discovered there are a lot of teen-agers out there who are HIV positive who are not drug addicts and are not gay.

One of the reasons why I wanted to do this special is because AIDS is a new thing with teen-agers. There's no program set up to counsel them or to help them if they are HIV positive. Nobody really recognizes the need to do this quite yet. I hope the show will raise awareness not just in teen-agers but also with some adults.

Besides the interview with Steve, what are other segments in the AIDS special?

There's a whole section devoted to education and a segment on teen health educators. They're kids who go around to schools and street outreach programs and do a complete AIDS education talk and will hand out pamphlets and condoms.

There's also a segment on a high school in Marin County which is caught up in the middle of a controversy on how they are going to deal with AIDS education and if they should make condoms available. There will be a segment on additional teens who are HIV positive but don't have AIDS at this point.

I really enjoy doing serious subject matters. I found by producing these pieces almost like a music video, visually and graphically, it gets teens' attention. Kids really seem to be responding.

How long has "Youthquake" been on USA?

Since the beginning of the year, but we were in syndication for a year before that. I used to do one-hour specials. The show is shot entirely on location all across the U.S.

It's quite a leap from working on "Dance Fever" to "Youthquake."

I was working for "Dance Fever" for about six years as a talent coordinator and kind of a spokesperson. I saved the money I made from that, and when I was traveling around the country I started seeing these nonalcoholic nightclubs opening up for kids. I wanted to build the biggest and the best, and I built one in Dallas.

During my research for that--I was researching TV viewing habits--I saw kind of a hole in programming for teens. I decided to do a show like this which was designed basically to show their feelings and emotions. By being around them so much and hanging out with them, you get really a sense of what they want to see and how they feel. The reason why I am on the USA Network and not on syndication anymore is that USA allows me to do what I want.

Do you also travel the country talking to high school students?

Yeah. Last year we went on an 80-day high school tour from coast to coast with a Russian rock band. This year I am hoping to do the same thing with AIDS education.

What's the biggest misunderstanding about teens today?

I hear a lot of parents say kids between the ages of 14 and 17 are brain dead. That's not true. They're real smart. They are not stupid.

I think there is one problem that is linked with all the other problems and that is low self-esteem. I don't think kids are brought up knowing it's OK to like who they are.

I also see a a major communication problem in a lot of households. Sometimes parents or mothers ask me, "How do I get my kids to listen to me?" I think the first thing they have to be is a good listener and kind of try to deal with their kids on two planes: parental yes, but also friendship.

Kids are growing up real quick. There's more pressure, stress. I asked kids the other day if they feel if they are under any stress. This kid from California said, "You know, the price of houses are way too high. I worry about getting into school and getting a job and earning enough money where I can buy a house and have a family. It keeps me awake at night." I don't even think about this.

Were you always interested in the welfare and problems of children and teens?

I grew up too fast myself. I was working as an actress when I was 13 and 14. I did a couple of films and worked on the TV show "Dallas" for three years.

I was missing school. I knew what I wanted to do when I was real young. I was really focused on the business and becoming successful, and at one point they pulled me out of school so I could work. This year, I went to do a show on senior proms and it was the first prom I ever went to. I kind of missed out on a lot of that. I got to be real curious about teen-agers, and I started hanging out with them. It's not just my job. I like hanging out with them. I get about 800 letters a week, and I write back all my own mail. I really like kids; I really care about them.

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