NYT The N Channel Finds a Place on Teenager's Screens

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April 2, 2006


The New York Times


TEENAGE pregnancy, fights with parents, same-sex kissing: so begins another cycle of "Degrassi: The Next Generation." The Canadian series, a chronicle of the so-called lives of a large group of high school kids, embarks on the second half of its fifth season Friday at 8 p.m. The viral success of "Degrassi" has not only brought an audience to its broadcaster, MTV Networks' N cable channel, it has also helped shape the channel's image as a destination for teenage viewers.


Though the N is in only 48 million homes, new episodes of "Degrassi" consistently win their time period against everything else on television among teenagers. Over all, the N's ratings improved between 2004 and 2005 by 35 percent among teenagers. Amy Harris, a director at the media-buying agency Starcom Entertainment, said the channel had etched a place in the age spectrum already well-covered by other MTV Networks channels. "They've identified this key group between Nickelodeon and MTV," Ms. Harris said.


Now that the N has found its place, she added, it can continue to grow. "If we look back at what MTV was 10 years ago, and what it is today, it's now a pop culture factory," she said. "They can build the N into that same level of network."


The N is the nighttime identity of Noggin, which was founded in 1999 for preschool children — an audience with notoriously early bedtimes. After several failed efforts at nocturnal programming, Noggin executives created the N in April 2002 with an eye on the "tween" market, that acquisitive 9-to-14 age group that advertisers love. But to the surprise of the N team, its schedule — led by "Degrassi" — brought in the broader teenage audience, not just tweens. Rather than argue with that first hint of success, said Sarah Tomassi Lindman, the N's vice president for programming and production, "Pretty quickly on, we decided the N was a teen brand."


Which is all to say that the road to a clearly articulated identity has been winding. No one is more aware of that than Tom Ascheim, the channel's founder, who is Nickelodeon Television's executive vice president and general manager and oversees the N. In an interview in his midtown Manhattan office, Mr. Ascheim summarized the channel's confused and budget-conscious beginnings: "We relaunched a lot. We relaunched constantly. And we did it for $14 every time."


Amy Friedman, the head of development for the channel, described what that metaphorical $14 got them, brandwise. "The network's goal is to be the authentic voice of teens," she said. "To be much less touchy-feely about it, we're trying to be what the WB was about seven years ago. We are trying to say something new-interesting-bold-smart-real."


At WB's peak, that network had teen zeitgeist shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Felicity" and "Dawson's Creek." To duplicate that kind of success, the N will have to supplement the aging "Degrassi." Last year, the channel introduced two new dramas. One, "Instant Star," was created by Linda Schuyler, the executive producer of "Degrassi," and tells the story of a teenage girl who wins an "American Idol"-like talent contest. And "South of Nowhere" dramatizes what happens when a high school girl from Ohio moves with her family to Los Angeles and falls in love with another girl.


Both shows followed "Degrassi" on the schedule during their separate runs, and both did well, contributing to the channel's increasing popularity. ("Instant Star" is now in the middle of its second season; "South of Nowhere" will return in the fall.) But neither series managed to do better than "Degrassi" — and therein lies the N's biggest problem. As Mr. Ascheim said, "We need something else that people will come to on their own." He stopped, and thought for a moment. "We need more," he said.


So there will be more. The N recently bought the rights to old episodes of "Dawson's Creek" and "Summerland," two bygone WB series. The acquisition underscores Ms. Friedman's wish to appeal to young viewers the way WB did in its heyday and decreases the channel's reliance on constant repeats of shows like "Moesha" and "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." And in June, two more original series will have their premieres: "Beyond the Break," about a girls' surfing team in Hawaii, and "Whistler," a thriller in which a boy looks into the murder of his brother, a gold-medal-winning snowboarder.


"The goal was to get out of high school," Ms. Friedman said, providing an eye roll for emphasis. "That doesn't mean our heroes can't be in high school — we just do not want to see more lockers."


The median age of N viewers is 15. The plan, Ms. Lindman said, is to raise that age a year or two with the addition of the two summer shows, which means loosening the N's broadcast standards to allow for content that will appeal to older viewers. In "Whistler," for example, a main female character has sex with someone for money. "There isn't a list of taboo subjects," Ms. Lindman said. "We could approach basically anything as long as we do it through this authentic, responsible filter." (Which means, regarding "Whistler," that the character really regrets her actions.)


As with all things N, the question of standards leads back to "Degrassi." Ms. Schuyler, its creator, said the channel had become less tentative than it was at the start, when it was quick to edit the show's sometimes-provocative story lines. As an example of how the N and "Degrassi" have grown up together, she cited an episode from last summer in which one of the main characters contracted gonorrhea in her throat from oral sex. "That could not have been a topic in 'Degrassi' Season 1," Ms. Schuyler said, sounding pleased. "We all have more confidence now."


The premise of "South of Nowhere" — a love affair between two girls — is nearly impossible to imagine on the broadcast networks, which have dabbled in gay and lesbian story lines for young characters but have never gone as far as to make a gay romance the centerpiece of a series. On a recent visit to New York, Tom Lynch, the show's creator and executive producer, said Ms. Friedman showed no fear about the idea.


"There were just concerns that we treat it correctly," Mr. Lynch said. "It couldn't just rely on the coming-out story — it had to rely on the love story. It wasn't, 'Oh my God, I'm outing myself, and I'm this, and I'm going down that path.' That's where I think it would have gone horribly wrong."


Mr. Ascheim said that "South of Nowhere" was emblematic of how the channel wanted to present itself. "It doesn't preach — it doesn't pretend it's doing something particularly heroic," he said. "It's not grown-ups saying, 'Yo, young person.' It just kind of says, 'Hi, here we are, being who we are.' "


Originally from Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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