Kids & Tweens: Canada’s ‘Degrassi’ Top Draw for the N

Mar 14, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Earlier this month, one of the characters on “Degrassi: The Next Generation” attended her gay father’s wedding, while her boyfriend grappled with extremely serious mood swings.

Those are only two of the running subplots whose edgy content has made “Degrassi: The Next Generation” both the signature show and the top-rated original series for The N.

Viacom-owned The N transitions in the early evening to a network for teens after serving as Noggin, a preschooler destination, in the daytime.

“Degrassi” is a Canadian ensemble show that deals in a realistic way with situations many teens face-including sexual identity issues, date rape, drug use and school shootings-in a frank manner without sugar-coating.

“We have a saying around here that if kids are talking about it in the schoolyard, it should be on the show,” said Linda Schuyler, the show’s creator. “We are very bold, but not to be sensational. If it’s important to kids, we should be talking about it.”

That seems to be what both teens and media buyers like about the show.

“It’s hot and it’s sort of putting N on the map,” said Donna Speciale, president of U.S. broadcast at MediaVest.

Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior VP and director at Starcom Entertainment, said she refers to “Degrassi” as “the anti-‘O.C.'” because it deals with hard-hitting issues such as guns and violence. “They are raw, they’re real and you can see your life reflected,” she said. Starcom represents Kellogg’s, which advertises on the network.

The N began in 2002 as a commercial-free network supported by affiliate fees. It transitioned to an ad-supported model last May as it approached the 40-million-subscriber mark, a milestone it hit late last year. Forty million-about half the cable universe-is the magic number at which networks can amass enough eyeballs to pursue advertisers in earnest, said Tom Ascheim, executive VP and general manager, Nickelodeon Digital Television, which includes Noggin and The N.

The network counts about 40 advertisers, including Procter & Gamble (Pringles, Always and Tampax); Johnson & Johnson (Acuvue); Master Foods (M-Azing candy); and film studios Paramount and Sony Pictures. The dominant categories on The N are foods, packaged goods and movies, while the network hopes to grow in beauty, beverages and wireless, said Nelson Boyce, national sales director for The N.

The N targets viewers 12 to 17 and sells spots across dayparts, rather than in individual shows, Mr. Boyce said. He said the network expects to at least double its advertisers this year.

Part of that optimism is because of the growing recognition for “Degrassi,” which traces its roots to 1980, when “The Kids of Degrassi Street” premiered on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

The show morphed into “Degrassi Junior High” in 1986 and became “Degrassi High” in 1989 as the characters entered high school. The show ended in 1991 with a movie of the week called “School’s Out.”

“I figured that was the end of ‘Degrassi,'” Ms. Schuyler said. The show at one point had been on the air in 50 countries, including on PBS in the United States.

But in 1999 Ms. Schuyler missed her teen audience and wanted to develop another teen show. A “Degrassi” writer remarked that the character of Emma, who had been born to one of the show’s original characters in her eighth-grade year, would now be 13. The chronology seemed perfect for a spinoff.

CTV in Canada picked up the new show, starting with a new crop of kids in seventh grade. As it enters its fifth season, the show’s characters are in the 11th and 12th grades.

In addition to the teens, “Degrassi: The Next Generation” features four actors from the earlier version, who play their same characters now as adults.

The N has felt no pressure to tone down the show’s edgy content, said Sarah Tomassi Lindman, VP of programming and production for Noggin and The N, though it did decline to air an episode that ran in Canada in which the young Manny character discovers she’s pregnant and chooses to have an abortion. Ms. Lindman said the episode didn’t fit with the lighter theme planned for the summer, when it was originally scheduled to appear.

The network has no plans to reschedule the abortion episode, she said.

John Rash, senior VP of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, said the network’s programmers must walk a tightrope to keep “Degrassi’s” content edgy without alienating viewers and advertisers. “I would say that every demographic has shows that have more challenging content than others, which is partly their appeal in the marketplace,” Mr. Rash said, “but also can make it more challenging for their marketing partners.”

‘Degrassi: The Next Generation’

Network: The N (reaches 43 million homes)

Production company: Epitome Pictures

Logline: The trials and tribulations of adolescence

Premiered: 2002. Its predecessor first went on the air on CBC in Canada in 1980.

Runs: New episodes run Fridays at 8 p.m., and the show is stripped throughout the week.

Audience: Premiere episodes of the current season average 355,000 total viewers, three times higher than the network average, and generate a 1.8 rating in the teen demo, 50 percent higher than a year ago. The season four premiere Oct. 1, 2004, earned a 2.6 rating in the 12 to 17 demo, making it the highest-rated show that night on cable or broadcast among teens.