TELEVISION : Can ABC’s Noble Efforts Give Any Life to ‘Life’?


It’s refreshing to see ABC buck tradition and extend the season of one of prime time’s least popular series. Rarely has a network been so high on a series so low.

The beneficiary here is “My So-Called Life,” a weekly drama tracking the bumps and grinds of a fitful, moody, self-conscious, self-obsessed--in other words, quite typical--15-year-old, an inside-out account of middle-class adolescence presented mostly from her own perspective.

“My So-Called Life” is capable of greatness. Its recent Halloween-fantasy episode was one of the season’s highlights. And Thursday’s episode appealingly finds the virginal Angela (Claire Danes) trying to hold back a libido landslide when her clunky boyfriend pressures her to “do it” with him. Although praised by many critics as one of the best and most original and distinctive series in prime time--and blessed with TV’s best teen-age actress--”My So-Called Life” has endeared itself to relatively few viewers.


Its so-called ratings since its fall debut? As one of its teen-age characters might say with a grimace: Ooooh!

Of 103 prime-time shows measured by the A.C. Nielsen Co., “My So-Called Life” is a tiny blip, ranking a barely visible 95th for the season. Assuming the unaccustomed role of lenient parent, however, ABC recently ordered four additional episodes of the series for a total of 19, just three shy of a full season. What’s going on here?


This network act of faith in the face of withering commercial failure is not unprecedented. NBC renewed the famed “St. Elsewhere” after an opening 1982-83 season in which it ranked 86th out of 98 shows, for example. Although never a true hit, it endured five additional seasons, joining the great “Hill Street Blues” (another lethargic starter) in heaping prestige upon NBC when it most needed it. And this season brought Fox’s surprising full-season embrace of “M.A.N.T.I.S.,” a first-year series presently ranked last in prime-time ratings.

Although Fox denies it, pressure from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other black activists may have persuaded it to tighten its hug on “M.A.N.T.I.S.,” a series whose superhero is African American. “St. Elsewhere” had on its side NBC Chairman Grant Tinker, an executive known for exercising patience with low-rated shows, and the kind of upscale demographics especially prized by advertisers.

On the other hand, the core audience of the Winnie Holzman-created “My So-Called Life” is essentially adolescent. Nor does today’s ABC have a reputation for tolerantly sparing low-performing series, as did Tinker’s NBC. Plus no one, aside from some of its own sparse audience, perhaps, has intensely lobbied the network to extend “My So-Called Life,” whose executive producers, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, also created the memorable “thirtysomething,” an ABC series whose own so-so audience totals were balanced by gleaming demographics.

Zwick agrees that ABC’s support of “My So-Called Life” has been “extraordinary” in light of its ratings.



Is it really possible that ABC--one of those vast, cold, faceless corporate edifices that determines the fates of programs and careers based solely on a fiscal bottom line--is thinking with its heart instead of its head when it comes to “My So-Called Life?”

“We really love it,” said Stuart Bloomberg, whose job as executive vice president, ABC Entertainment, puts him in charge of the network’s program development. “For me, the prospect of not being a part of these characters’ lives on a weekly basis is something that I don’t look forward to. There is such a small handful of drama producers whose series constantly excite you and keep you off balance. These people (the “My So-Called Life” team members) don’t write with a safety net.”

Yet networks do program with safety nets. “I guess one thing is that our schedule is doing OK in most areas,” said Bloomberg, “so we have been able to keep this on, even though it doesn’t do too well. It could reach a point where we can’t, but we want to stretch that line.”

Although “My So-Called Life” may not be everyone’s taste, the depth of its ratings abyss seems almost inexplicable given its overall quality. Why is it unable to attract many viewers?

* Theory 1: The series is a victim of its own accurate reading of youth, at times creating such a painful mirror-image of adolescence that many present and former parents of teen-agers can’t bear revisiting the discomfort.

“We want (the producers) to show some of the highs as well as the lows,” Bloomberg said. “They are finally adding some joy. There’s a ray of sunshine in Angela’s life, and we are encouraging more of that.”

However, Zwick said the producers received “no directive” from ABC to lighten the series. “If things seem lighter now, maybe that’s coincidental.”

* Theory 2: Some believe that there’s room on the networks for only one “smart” show per evening, and on Thursdays, NBC has that slot nailed down with its 8 p.m. hit comedy, “Mad About You.” On the other hand, you could argue that “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” the two NBC comedies that directly follow “Mad About You,” are “smart” shows too.

* Theory 3: “My So-Called Life” is too ill-suited to its 8 p.m. time slot to ever draw much of an audience at that hour. When ABC tested a rerun of the show at 10 p.m. earlier in the season, its ratings rose dramatically.

Bloomberg acknowledges that 8 p.m. is not ideal for the oft-sophisticated storytelling of “My So-Called Life,” and Zwick agrees. ABC “understood going in just how difficult the time slot will be,” Zwick said. “But they didn’t have a 10 o’clock or 9 o’clock time slot to give it. When ‘thirtysomething’ first came on, ABC had a much less strong schedule, and therefore the ability to put us anyplace where we would be best served.”

Just where “My So-Called Life” is best served, or whether it will be served at all, remains to be seen. “I don’t think we are going to run past January,” predicted Zwick, who believes that ABC at that point will banish the series to limboland--better known as “hiatus”--and not make a decision on its fate for next season until May, when it will know the new time slots it will have available.

Although a series as good as “My So-Called Life” merits more than just a faint hope, given its ratings, it’s fortunate to have any hope at all.