THE racy antics on the new series "Greek" won't be surprising to anyone who's attended college, heard about what sometimes transpires after hours at the nation's institutions of higher learning or even just kicked back to watch "Animal House." Does "Greek" have binge drinking? Check. Lots of crude insults? Sure. Sex? Oh, absolutely, and often too. These are college kids.
What's a tad unusual is that "Greek" will, starting July 9, air on ABC Family. You know, the cable network owned by the Walt Disney Co. The channel that still runs Pat Robertson's crusading chat show, "The 700 Club," twice a day. So viewers searching for a truly surreal TV experience will be able to watch "Greek" partyers do body shots and then hang around to hear Robertson and his devout friends jawbone about how television has too much sex -- as they did last week, when comic Tim Conway showed up on "700 Club" and spoke about his work with the Parents Television Council, a favorite group of conservative cultural critics.
ABC Family has had a bizarre history: It started out as an arm of Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (ABC Family is still legally obligated to run his "700 Club") and had a short, unhappy life in Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. kingdom. So ABC Family has more trouble being thematically consistent than most networks. But at least executives over there are finally getting people to watch. Thanks to the teen dramas "Kyle XY" and "Wildfire," the network is posting some of its best ratings ever, with the second season of "Kyle," which started last month, averaging a respectable 2.2 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Under its British-born president, Paul Lee -- who formerly ran BBC America -- the channel is trying a noble experiment in cat herding, targeting finicky teens and twentysomethings who will on occasion glom on to something that interests them, such as "Gilmore Girls" or "Smallville" (ABC Family airs both in syndication).
"It helped us that the WB stumbled and collapsed," Lee told me last week.
OK, he's overstating the point; last year, the WB in fact merged with its archrival UPN to form the CW. But that did leave one less network jostling at the media trough for a limited supply of teens and young adults. Marketers refer to them as "millennials," a not-so-euphonious bit of corporate-speak that makes humans sound like space aliens. The ABC Family business plan came from surveying the preferences of 50,000 or so young people with the help of the research firms Frank Magid Associates and Yankelovich Inc.
The key, Lee said, is to be able to depict the real-life stuff high schoolers and college-age people care about -- including, yup, the sex and drinking -- but to do it in an "optimistic" way.
"We want to be a life-affirming network," he said.
That's a lot of pressure to put on a series like "Greek," which is an entertaining, often funny ramble through college life, even if it's not nearly as barbed or knowing as Judd Apatow's similarly themed "Undeclared," which ran during Fox's 2001-02 season.
The appealing cast includes former "As the World Turns" star Spencer Grammer (the daughter of "Frasier's" Kelsey Grammer) as Casey, whose sex life and moral conflicts are complicating her pursuit of the presidency of a snooty sorority, and newcomer Jacob Zachar as her brother, Rusty, a dorky engineering student who ignores his sister's advice and rushes at exclusive fraternities (in the pilot, he's the one who attempts to down a body shot, with unfortunate results for his partner). Jessica Rose, who shot to fame as Bree in the online series "lonelygirl15," will have a recurring role as a sorority girl.
Executive producer Shawn Piller said the inspiration for Patrick Sean Smith's script came from the upbeat college-movie hits of the 1980s, such as John Hughes' "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Pretty in Pink."
"Those films had such a kind of spark to them," Piller said. "It wasn't just a college exploitation show about sex." (Disclosure: My wife works on another Piller series, USA's "The Dead Zone.")
Piller understands, though, that "family" and "college comedy" are two concepts that don't often go together. "People have expectations based on the brand," he said. "You just try to tell the most realistic types of stories. If it's authentic, people will believe it."
Piller, who's in his 30s, added, "Kids are so sophisticated now. They don't view TV or networks the way we grew up watching it. They hear there's a great show, they just want to find it. They don't care if it's ABC or ABC Family." That may be true, but parents can be excused if they're a little confused by all this. Despite the network's name, are viewers in search of kid-safe programming better off sticking with, say, ABC Family's corporate sibling, the Disney Channel, home of tween hits like "Hannah Montana" and "High School Musical"?
The larger point for ABC Family, skeptics say, is that the TV dial is already oversaturated with networks chasing teens and young adults. Brad Adgate, an analyst at the ad firm Horizon Media, pointed to "Slacker Cats," a hip cartoon that ABC Family will launch next month.
"It sounds like Disney's answer to Adult Swim," said Adgate, who worked during the 1990s at the Family Channel, a predecessor to ABC Family. "It's a crowded landscape. They're going after a group of people who don't watch a lot of TV."
But Lee said he isn't worried, especially now that Nielsen has started measuring TV viewing on college campuses, for years a black hole in the ratings. "We got a serious bump for that."
What about Robertson, though? Isn't it a bit awkward for a network that hopes to capture college kids in all their libertine glory to host a kingpin of the religious right?
"It's really not an issue," Lee said. "Advertisers are not focused on it, viewers aren't focused on it.... I haven't been asked that question in a long time."
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org