One of the biggest demographic shifts in the history of network television is about to take place, and many baby-boomer viewers are not going to know what hit them.
Twenty-five years of feeling important when they watched prime-time network television -- because most of the shows were about people like them -- will be coming to an end for boomers as the new television season begins this month.
There are still going to be series for fortysomethings in the new season -- such shows as "Murphy Brown," which heads into its last year on CBS, and Steven Bochco's new "Murder One" on ABC. But the dominant theme this fall is youth.
In fact, there are so many new series about young people living in big cities, looking for love, struggling in the workplace and relying on a close circle of friends for cafe latte and sympathy that they are almost indistinguishable. By my count, 18 of the 34 new series from ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox fit the young-friends formula in one way or another.
The conventional wisdom says the ratings success of NBC's "Friends" explains all these new series. The Thursday night sitcom about six young friends in New York finished eighth among the more than 100 prime-time shows in its freshman season last year, according to A. C. Nielsen. Even its theme song -- "I'll Be There for You," by the Rembrandts -- is a hit.
Given the networks' history of compulsively imitating last year's hits when creating next year's new shows, the "Friends" analysis seems a sound one -- especially when you couple it with a growing insistence by Madison Avenue that the networks kowtow to the first law of television advertising: Younger demographics equals more advertising dollars.
"In simple dollars and cents, the younger demographic brings in more money -- period. To ignore that is stupid," is the way Leslie Moonves, the new entertainment president of CBS, put it when asked to explain his network's conspicuous shift from courting baby boomers in recent years to wooing 18- to 34-year-olds this fall.
NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield agrees about the growing importance of young demographics, saying, "The way [for a network] to stay healthy is to hit the desired demos for the advertisers."
But Littlefield adds that it would be a mistake to explain what's going on this fall by saying everybody is simply imitating "Friends" in hopes of winning younger viewers.
"Is the success of 'Friends' a factor here? To some extent," Littlefield says. "But it's a lot more complicated than saying a show like 'Caroline in the City' is just a rip-off of 'Friends.' There are all sorts of factors involved in a network schedule, and I think you have to go beyond such a simplistic explanation."
Littlefield has a point. If creating new shows is only a matter of imitation, why aren't there any new doctor dramas this year? NBC's "ER" was an even bigger hit in its rookie season last year than "Friends," finishing second among all prime-time series.
The cultural explanation
The "Friends" explanation results from an economic analysis of the new season. But while the first answer to almost every question about the medium is a dollars-and-cents one, television is also about culture. Prime-time television is a web of stories, characters and places created in the dream factories of Hollywood and accepted or rejected by viewers who use television to find pleasure and make sense of their lives.
A cultural analysis of these new series reveals a deeper pattern -- one that speaks about the larger programming cycles and recurring narratives on television.
That pattern involves a young woman coming to the big city, trying to make it in the workplace, looking for love and finding support among friends. More specifically, it has the young woman working in media, having a sidekick as a foil, and being of a background that results in humor based on the collision of her refined sensibilities with the hustle of her workaday world.
Sound familiar? It should. It's a pattern we've seen before in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which debuted in 1970 and hooked millions of fresh-out-of-college baby boomers on prime-time television. Are the networks trying to re-imagine Mary in hopes of bringing a new generation of viewers into the tent of prime-time television?
Fred Barron, the executive producer of "Caroline in the City," a sitcom starring Lea Thompson as a young cartoonist living in New York, said "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was the model for his sitcom. He admits, however, that he's not surprised by the comparison to "Friends," since his show is part of NBC's blockbuster Thursday lineup.
"In terms of what we're trying to draw on, it sounds retro, but we all love the old 'Mary Tyler Moore Show,' " Barron says. "We're looking at kind of a Mary of the '90s here."
Lots of '90s Marys
This fall, the list of contenders to be "Mary of the '90s" is a long one.
ABC has Nora Wilde (Tea Leoni) in "The Naked Truth," a sitcom airing at 9:30 on Wednesday nights after "Grace Under Fire." Wilde is forced to resume her career as a photojournalist after a bad day in divorce court leaves her without a penny of her former husband's wealth. The only job she can get is at a sleazy tabloid.
CBS has Janet Carroll (Bonnie Hunt) in "The Bonnie Hunt Show" at 8:30 Friday nights. Hunt plays a television reporter at a Chicago station. In describing her character, Hunt said, "As far as the comparisons go, I think there are times when I'm Mary and other times when I'm Rhoda in this show."
CBS also has Kim Cooper (Nancy Travis) in the sitcom "Almost Perfect," at 8:30 Sunday nights after "Cybill." Cooper, a television writer, becomes the executive producer of a fictional cop show and presides over a team of misfits, reminiscent of the newsroom at WJM.
There is yet another young woman on CBS making her way in the media this fall. Editor Stephanie Wells (Mariel Hemingway) comes from Seattle to New York to take over the slick "Communique" magazine in "Central Park West" at 9 p.m. Wednesdays. It's a drama, not a sitcom, but the same narrative )) is at play.
And, if all those daughters of Mary are unable to turn the world on with their smiles, CBS has the real thing in "New York News" at 9 Thursday nights. Moore plays a newspaper editor in this drama that airs opposite NBC's "Seinfeld."
In addition to "Caroline in the City," NBC returns Hope Davidson (Cynthia Stevenson) in "Hope & Gloria" at 8:30 Sunday nights after "Mad About You." Hope is a young producer for a daily talk show at a Pittsburgh television station.
Executive producer Bill Steinkellner says there are so many series like "Hope & Gloria" this fall, it qualifies as a new genre: The "girl buddy" show. But we've been there before -- in sitcoms with "Mary" and "Rhoda," and in drama with "Cagney & Lacey."
The big question is whether today's audience will connect with this crop of leading ladies the way audiences in the 1970s and '80s did with Mary Richards and Chris Cagney. After all, those series reflected -- for the first time -- relatively new conflicts women were feeling due to the changing lifestyle options they were being offered.
Monomyth or myopia?
The central narrative of these series -- young woman comes to big city to work and find female friendship, and struggles through one misadventure after another in search of male love -- raises other important questions as well.
One is whether television's repetition and celebration of this story line in recent years is making it it into a kind of monomyth for American women -- like the male hero quests in various mythologies identified by the late Joseph Campbell in "Hero With a Thousand Faces." Is television, with its ability to confer status, making this life path seem like the only one for bright, young
A related question concerns what girls and young women in the television audience won't be seeing this fall. I can't think of one new series with a female character who chooses the path of marriage, children and the suburbs. Ten years ago, at the height of the Reagan era, there were more than a dozen new network series featuring young moms. This season, even Lori Loughlin -- the perky young wife of "Full House" -- has to don a trench coat and play a very-Mary-like big city newswoman to find work in the new ABC sitcom "Hudson Street."
In our television culture, if the marriage-kids-suburbs path is not shown on the tube in prime time, will young women still consider it a viable option? It's certainly more fuel for the family-values, Heartland-vs.-Hollywood, culture-wars debate.
Friends get prime times
As fascinating as that discussion promises to be, the young-women series are only a subset of the young-friends formula -- the big story of the new season. In addition to being everywhere on the dial, these series generally have the best time slots, meaning the networks will showcase them to the largest numbers of viewers.
Take, for example, Thursday night on NBC. It is going to be a straight shot from one group of young singles living in New York to another, starting with "Friends" at 8, "The Single Guy" at 8:30, "Seinfeld" (OK, not so young any more) at 9 and "Caroline in the City" at 9:30.
"The Single Guy," which gets the slot between "Friends" and "Seinfeld," stars Jonathan Silverman as a young novelist whose friends are all married and determined to set him up with "Ms. Right." His co-star is Jessica Hecht, whom viewers will recognize from her recurring role as Susan on "Friends." Silverman has also appeared as a guest on "Friends."
Fox's best-looking sitcom about young friends is called "Partners," and it gets the 9 p.m. Tuesday time spot after "Melrose Place." The executive producers of "Partners" are Jeff Greenstein and Jeff Strauss, who last year were the supervising producers of "Friends."
If you don't like that one, how about "The Crew," which airs Thursday night after "Living Single"? Fox describes it as a "comedy about the lives of . . . young friends who help each other navigate life in their turbulent 20s."
On ABC, it's "The Drew Carey Show" at 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays after "Ellen." This sitcom is a male-oriented, working-class version of "Friends," set in Cleveland.
And CBS has "Can't Hurry Love" in the choice spot between "The Nanny" and "Murphy Brown" on Monday night. CBS describes the sitcom with Nancy McKeon as a "humorous look at friendship, love and dating in New York in the 1990s." Sound familiar?
Celebrating urban life
As with the "Mary" clones, there are sociological questions about these shows, too. One of the most compelling is why so many celebrate urban life at a time when the reality is one of increasing flight to the suburbs. Has the city somehow become a symbolic place of mystery, excitement and romance in the minds of suburbanites who wouldn't live there on a bet? Has the city become a new frontier of the heart?
Brad Hall, the executive producer of "The Single Guy," says movies from the 1930s have made New York into a place of romance in viewers' minds.
"I mean, if you look at all the great romantic screwbally kind of movies from the '30s and '40s, they're all in New York," Hall says. "Even 'Sleepless in Seattle,' a movie about Seattle, ends up in New York, of course. The whole country, even if they've never been to New York, knows about it . . . from the movies."
It would not be the first time Hollywood has colonized the popular imagination in such a manner. Whatever the case, the romantic New York that viewers will see this fall in sitcoms and prime-time soap operas, like "Central Park West," is a far cry from the vision of New York portrayed on prime-time television during the 1950s and early 1960s (not to mention what's seen in dramas like "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order").
During that television era, everyone from the Ricardos and the Mertzes to the Goldbergs were fleeing their New York City apartments for the suburbs. For Lucy and Ricky, it was from the Mertz-owned apartment on East 61st to Westport, Conn. The Goldbergs' journey to the postwar promised land took them from Tremont Avenue in the Bronx to mythical Haverville.
"Is this the village of the Haves?" critic David Marc asks in his book "Comic Visions," as he catalogs how that make-believe migration to the burbs mirrored American social reality at the time.
To summarize TV's attitude toward the city in those days, Marc cites an episode of "Father Knows Best" titled "The Andersons Go to New York." In it, Father warns daughter Betty of the depraved "creatures" who lay in wait at the train station in New York to take advantage of good girls like her. Quite a change from there to, say, the romantic opening montage of "Mad About You."
More than 'Friends'
There is going to be a lot of change in prime time this television season -- from the disappearance of the family hour to the proliferation of all those new young friends at the expense of baby-boom characters. But there is a danger in stories like this to overreport the changes and focus only on what fits the working hypothesis.
Don Ohlmeyer, the West Coast president of NBC, says he's continually being asked: "Are we cloning 'Friends'? Is everybody else cloning 'Friends'? Are all the shows on television going to look the same?"
Ohlmeyer stresses the continuity viewers will find in the return of such series as "Frasier," "Murphy Brown," "Seinfeld," "Law & Order," "Roseanne," "NYPD Blue" and "Home Improvement." Though three of them -- "Murphy Brown," "Seinfeld" and "Roseanne" -- are in their last season, he's right to call for their mention.
And it should also be mentioned that some of the most interesting new series this fall are not about young friends. CBS' "American Gothic" -- a dark, small-town, Southern drama from film director Sam Raimi -- could become a Friday night cult hit, like "The X-Files." NBC has a potential sitcom sleeper in "The Pursuit of Happiness," following "Frasier" at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays. And the biggest buzz for any new show is probably going to belong to Bochco's "Murder One," with the mesmerizing Daniel Benzali as its star and all those echoes of the O. J. Simpson trial to play with.
But, those are the shows that I found most interesting. And I'm one of those baby boomers, trying hard not to be too culture-bound, while bracing myself for the tidal wave of young friends that threatens to wash my generation onto the ragged rocks of prime-time marginalization.
There will still be a place for us in the new world of prime time. After all, boomer icon Elliott Gould has a recurring role on "Friends" -- as the cranky, conservative father of Monica (Courteney Cox) and Ross (David Schwimmer). That's right, the actor who seemed to personify the counterculture in the 1970s with "M*A*S*H" and "Getting Straight" on the big screen now plays a secondary character whom the new generation mocks on television.
"So we beat on, boats against the current. . . ." to quote another twentysomething who came to New York and told us all about his friends: Nick Carraway of "The Great Gatsby."