It wasn't too long ago that veteran television producer Peter Engel felt more than a little uncomfortable when talking to colleagues about his pet project.
"I remember when Norman Lear and I ran into each other at the back lot at Sunset and Gower a few years ago, and he asked me what I was up to," Engel recalled. "I told him I had a show on NBC at 10 o'clock, and he said, 'Oh, really? What night?' and I had to say, 'Well, no night. It's on Saturday morning. . . .' "
Those were the days when Engel, who said he is "almost 50," felt frustrated when talking about "Saved by the Bell," his situation comedy that revolved around a wholesome group of photogenic, pimple-free teens at a fictional California high school.
The live-action show, which premiered in 1989, was lost in the Saturday morning "ghetto" of animated superheroes, chipmunks and rabbits. None of his peers watched it. And he didn't like the title: "Sounded like a game show."
Those days of feeling humble about "Saved by the Bell" seem to be over for Engel, judging from the "Saved by the Bell" watch on his wrist, the "Saved by the Bell" pictures on his wall, the collection of "Saved by the Bell" books in his closet and the "Saved by the Bell" dolls and the "Saved by the Bell" board game prominently displayed in his reception area.
"Saved by the Bell" is not yet in the same class, popularitywise, as that other show about high school, "Beverly Hills, 90210." But it definitely is vying for "Most Likely to Be the Most Visible."
* First-run episodes can be seen on NBC Saturdays at 9 a.m. An hour's worth of "Saved by the Bell" syndicated reruns air weekdays at 5 p.m. on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Other single episodes repeat Sunday afternoons on Channel 5.
* A blitz of "Saved by the Bell" merchandise--including dolls, games, towels, stickers and comic books--is already on shop shelves or due out by Christmas. Still more items, such as posters and sleep wear, are planned for next year.
* The series is seen in 34 countries and is the most popular program of its kind in France, the producers say. Its success at home, meanwhile, prompted the creation of another Engel-produced show, "California Dreams," which joined the NBC Saturday morning lineup this season.
* Perhaps most important to Engel, who always thought the show could succeed at night, "Saved by the Bell" finally goes prime-time tonight at 9 when NBC airs the two-hour movie "Saved by the Bell, Hawaiian Style," which features the bouncy teens cavorting in swimsuits on the beaches of Hawaii.
Most of the "Bell" mania centers on the attractiveness of its six young stars: Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Slater (Mario Lopez), Screech (Dustin Diamond), Jesse (Elizabeth Berkley), Kelly (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) and Lisa (Lark Voorhies). The show revolves around their friendship and comic adventures in the off-campus malt shop. Some of them have become major heartthrobs in teen magazines.
But the new taste of success is a mixed blessing for Engel. All the attention and the momentum is not enough to save "Saved by the Bell"--at least with the cast members who have attracted the most attention.
The show finished shooting its last episode months ago, and the final show, in which the teens graduate from fictional Bayside High School in fictional Palisades, Calif., will air next month. Many of the cast members have already gone on to other projects.
"If the TV movie gets high ratings and the merchandise takes off, maybe we'll have to send them to college," Engel said jokingly.
John Agoglia, executive president of NBC Productions, for which Engel produces the series, indicated that the timing of the merchandising and the television movie with the departure of the cast may not have been the best: "Should we have done this last year? Yeah, maybe."
But those associated with the show said the series had to shoot far in advance in order to capture the young cast members while they were still young. In any case, they are gambling that it's the show, not its stars, that is the principal lure.
"You can't look at this like a regular series that goes on and off," Agoglia said. "We're looking at this as a franchise. We're bringing the show and the premise back next year, and we will have other cast members going through it. This is our franchise on Saturday mornings."
The only original cast member certain to return next year in the new version of "Saved by the Bell" is Dennis Haskins, who plays Mr. Belding, the school's bumbling principal. Engel said he believes the show will continue to make a unique connection with its young audience, although the show's connection with real-life issues facing young people is minimal.
The show and its characters are closer to "Dobie Gillis" than to "90210." At Bayside High, the colors are vibrant and cheery. There are no graffiti on the walls, no gangs in the hallways, no drugs being sold on the schoolyard. Although Lopez is Latino and Voorhies is African-American, their ethnic backgrounds were never referred to on the show. The teen lingo is far from being on-the-edge.
Engel maintained that his series is in many ways more realistic than other shows intended for youth. "We always thought that what we were doing was the real thing," he said. "Most kids aren't alcoholics, most kids aren't pregnant, most kids don't use drugs. What they're worrying about are grades, communication with their parents, dating and sports."
In contrast to "90210," the hormonal drives of the teens on "Saved by the Bell" are extremely low, despite the skimpiness of some of their outfits. Engel said sexual matters are pointedly avoided. The writers once discussed doing an episode in which one of the girls falls asleep in one of the boy's bedroom. The girl would wake up thinking that "something" had happened even though nothing did. Engel nixed the idea.
"I didn't want some 6- or 8-year-old kid going up to his parents saying, 'What didn't they do?' " Engel said. "Mothers would never forgive us. They put their kids in front of the screen when we come on, knowing that they don't have to worry."
Gosselaar, the show's main heartthrob, said it was not necessary for the show to be realistic to be effective.
"Looking at this show is like reading a fantasy book," he said. "Kids go through all these real-life problems at their school every day, so it's nice that they can look at a school where none of these problems exist."
Engel echoed the sentiment. "I mean, who wouldn't want to go to a high school like this?" he said, smiling.