Todd Lencz could easily be the real-life template for the characters on Melrose Place. Like the fictional "baby busters" in the Fox Broadcasting Co. series, Lencz is in his mid-20s, well-educated, and lives in a comfortable Los Angeles apartment. Like one of the characters, he is working part-time to pay for his graduate training. So what does Lencz, a PhD candidate in psychology, think of Fox's paean to buster life? "It's the dumbest thing I've ever seen. The characters have no personality, and the stories are entirely formulaic."
Sadly for Fox, that's no minority opinion. Melrose Place has faded like a Southern California tan in winter since its debut last July. Despite Melrose's promising pedigree as a spin-off of the high school hit Beverly Hills 90210, young viewers aren't warming up to this vision of recent college graduates confronting the real world.
TURNOFF. It has become the great conundrum of television programming: Busters were weaned on the tube, but give them a network show of their very own, and they're likely to tune it out faster than a Barry Manilow ballad. In addition to Fox, NBC and ABC rolled out several new dramas and comedies this season aimed at young viewers. Yet so far, two of them, The Heights and The Round Table, have been canceled. And several others are languishing in the ratings cellar.
True, programs such as Fox's The Simpsons and NBC's Seinfeld have a loyal following among young viewers. But overall, the networks have been unable to carve out a franchise with this audience. Ten years ago, 36% of the network prime-time TV audience was under the age of 35. Last season, just 31% was. "They're more likely to watch alternative media" such as cable, says Betsy Frank, director of TV information and new media at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising. "They're very selective, and they grew up with a remote control in their hands."
That poses a knotty problem for advertisers. They covet the 18-to-34-year-old age group. And network TV is still the most cost-effective way to sell products to a mass audience. So marketers keep prodding the networks to develop youthful programs, hoping that each new one will be a breakout hit like Beverly Hills 90210. But CBS, the one network that has resisted such entreaties, leads the Nielsens.
Why are young viewers rejecting shows aimed at them? For one thing, many are almost comically unoriginal. After the success of Beverly Hills, programmers rushed for the Xerox machine. Four of this season's new shows are dramas with an attractive clique not unlike Luke Perry and his pals. Yet another college-age cohort will arrive in January, when Fox rolls out the ensemble drama Class of '96.
Fox executives say their programs still speak to young viewers in ways the other networks don't. Andy Fessel, senior vice-president of research and marketing at Fox, insists the ratings for Melrose Place will take off once its characters are more fully developed. But he concedes: "There has been a tendency to copycat success."
`FOOL'S ERRAND.' Engaging twentysomething viewers, though, may take more than just engrossing characters or a nifty premise. After all, these are the viewers who grew up on the nonlinear structure and blizzard of images on MTV. "My mind is trained to receive images at that rate," says Lencz. For him and other busters, even the concept of sitcoms and dramas seems a bit dated. "They care a lot less about plausibility, character development, and plots that make sense," says Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Certainly, MTV has had success junking the traditional narrative format. The music-video channel boosted its ratings this summer with The Real World, a documentary that recorded the antics of seven twentysomething types with all the coherence of a home movie. MTV plans more such video-verite efforts next year.
Some programmers argue that the networks should concentrate on developing good shows and leave the pursuit of youth to MTV, since these restless viewers will never be a reliable audience: "To try to capture this group is a fool's errand," says Grant Tinker, former chairman of NBC. Tinker's old colleagues may inwardly agree. But given the pressure from sponsors, they know that winning the young is one programming riddle they have to crack.