- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 13, 2002

NEW YORK — Cheryl Gottlieb, a teenager from East Meadow, N.Y., watches NBC's 1960s-era drama, "American Dreams," for insight into two persons not on television her mother and father.
"My parents grew up during that time," she says. "It's interesting to see what they went through and the similarities or differences with living in today's society. The main difference is the family spending a lot of time together and eating every meal together."
At a time of resurgence in family television, a new generation of shows is stretching the genre's common definition, and families are seeking them out for unexpected reasons.
Miss Gottlieb was one of 1,000 teenagers surveyed by ElectricArtists, an online marketing firm, about which new television shows they were most excited about this fall. "American Dreams" and ABC's comedy, "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," topped the list.
In their youth, Miss Gottlieb's mother and father might have watched a show because it annoyed their parents, but the teenagers who liked these new programs told ElectricArtists that it was partly because they could see their parents in the characters. Stories that provide a window into the time their parents grew up or focus on families that remind them of their own are particularly compelling to these youngsters, says Marc Schiller, the company's CEO.
"Shows about families are interesting, because you can see how normal your family actually is," Miss Gottlieb says. "You see problems that other kids your age might face and that may make your problems seem real small."
The creators of both of the new programs say they're fixed on an ideal that's much harder than it sounds: a family show that is equally appealing to both parents and their children.
Traditional family shows tend to offer idealized characters that provide wish fulfillment for viewers, says Jonathan Prince, executive producer of "American Dreams."
As a result, the characters aren't edgy enough for many teenagers. Mr. Prince appreciates the WB's "7th Heaven" as a good family show, but says it doesn't ring true to his teenage nieces and nephews.
Some shows take one perspective at the expense of another. On "Dawson's Creek," the teenagers are whip-smart and the adults usually simpletons. "Malcolm in the Middle" and "The Bernie Mac Show" are hilarious but appreciated more by exasperated parents than their children.
More often than not, family shows have one portal for viewers instead of two.
Mr. Prince has watched "8 Simple Rules" and appreciates how its creators have resisted the temptation to make John Ritter's character the goofy father who can't keep up with his daughters.
"That's why I think teens have wanted to see it," he says. "I think teens wanted to see a show about a mom and a dad and a real albeit very cute 16-year-old. It's fresh to these viewers. It makes them feel that they could be part of that house."
That is exactly what he's shooting for, says Tracy Gamble, executive producer of "8 Simple Rules."
He runs situations and dialogue for the show past his teenagers and their friends for a reality check. Most episodes are rooted in his life: a story line where the daughter drives without a license also happened in his family.
Mr. Gamble once wrote for "Home Improvement," and he tries to follow that show's example by having something for everybody. He hopes young people who watch the show will leave with some empathy for their own parents.
Parents look at their children the way their own parents looked at them, he says.
"The character Paul continually struggles with his daughters, but really what he's doing is mourning that their time as his little girls is coming to an end," he says.
Mr. Prince provides so many entry points for the different generations in "American Dreams" that it's almost dizzying. Adult viewers can relate to the parents but also to the teenage characters, because the show depicts them growing up in the same era.
"American Dreams" features contemporary music stars performing songs of the 1960s Usher singing Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get a Witness," for instance.
"If a parent says to their kid, 'Who is this Usher guy?' I love the idea that it's starting a conversation," Mr. Prince says.
He hoped the program would be popular with the 18-to-49-year-old demographic that NBC loves. The way it has caught on with teenagers is a pleasant surprise.
One of his viewers, 16-year-old Peter Mao of Ontario, Canada, says he is curious about the 1960s and wonders whether the stories told about his parents were true.
"If I'm watching television, I always try to get my parents to watch with me," Mr. Mao says. "They say it's rotting my brain. I say it's giving my mind an intellectual hiatus.
"When we do watch together as a family, we try to watch programs that interest all of us."

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