What Teenagers Really Watch – TV Guide Magazine

The writer posed as a student – and got the inside story on their TV likes and dislikes

I grew up in a house where television was forbidden on school nights. Every week brought another contest with my sister to see who could concoct the best excuse to put us where we wanted to be – at a schoolmate’s house watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or Laugh-In. We had to watch those shows. There was too high a social price to pay for missing one episode.

Years later, I made a move that may forever place me in George Plimpton’s shadow. Writing articles for a youth-culture magazine. I had noticed that editors, music and film executives, even rock stars, all discussed “the kids” as if they were some enormous whale to be harpooned and brought to shore. I wanted to experience what it’s really like nowadays being a kid. So I accepted a book offer to “go back to high school” and find out.

My mother, a schoolteacher, had skipped me three grades the first time around. At 22, I still looked young enough to fit into “Ridgemont Senior High,” the middle-class, Southern California high school chosen as the setting for my adventure. (The name of the school and of the students I spoke with have been changed.) I had hoped to recapture my own adolescence there. What I found was a lot of kids busy trying to lose theirs.

For the kids at Ridgemont, I found, watching television was not the indispensable activity it had been for my sister and me. To finance a life style that included gas, clothes and date money, many of the students had taken on part-time jobs at fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Jack in the Box. Along with the jobs came a new, adultlike self-image. Television, like drugs and skateboards, was often discussed as a symptom of preadolescence. “I don’t miss it,” was a commonly heard phrase around Ridgemont. “I went through my TV phase in grammar school.”

Ellen Russell, 17, worked at a 24-hour doughnut shop. There were long stretches of time when no customers were in the shop, and she often watched a small black-and-white television just inside the back kitchen. She had seen almost every current TV show, she said, and they had given her a definite concept of hell. Ellen Russell’s hell would find her strapped to a chair, watching continuous episodes of One Day at a Time.

“I can’t stand that show, and shows like it, because they pretend to be so ‘real’.” she said when I called her recently. “They pretend to discuss ‘real’ issues, but really they’re just recycling old plots with sexier and more farfetched stories. They’re so predictable, and dumb.”

Her favorite show, she said, was Hill Street Blues. “Anybody can get killed on that show,” she continued. “Anyone can die. That’s real real life. I want a show where the star doesn’t always have to live for next week.”

I found out later that Ellen Russell is not alone in her contempt for current TV fare. For the last 20 years, according to annual Nielsen reports, teen-agers have watched less TV than any other age group.

“Sometimes,” Ellen continued, “it seems like everybody on TV has something wrong with their family. Somebody’s divorced or separated. One parent with 10 kids… like I say, they try so hard to be ‘real’ that it isn’t real at all.”

The boring superrealism of the current shows, it seemed, brought on a curious phenomenon around Ridgemont. Many kids were headed back to the shows of the ’50s, old standbys likeI Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver.

The latter may well be one of the most popular reruns among adolescents. I knew one 16-year-old who held a regular afternoon Beaver party. He and several of his friends got together nearly every day after school to watch the vintage family comedy, marveling at the episodes as relics from a long-gone era when the Family Unit was still intact and being an adult was as easy as Ward and June Cleaver standing at the kitchen window wondering, “What are the boys doing today?” Twenty years later, a new generation of teen-agers finds Beaver more hysterical than ever.

Television, meanwhile, has taken on a new position of respectability with adults in the school system. As recently as eight years ago, television was still the evil seductress, the Enemy of Homework. Say goodbye to those days. Now television is the homework. Teachers at Ridgemont often used documentaries, specials and movies-of-the-week for class assignments. In fact, in a classic turnaround, many high-school teachers now watch more television than their students.

During my year back in high school I encountered a geometry teacher who almost completely assumed the persona and mannerisms of his favorite role model. Nothing unusual, except the role model was Steve McGarrett, the humorless detective from Hawaii Five-O. The teacher spoke in an unmistakable Jack Lord staccato and wrote messages on the board like: “Test on Friday. Be There. Aloha.” And he was not Hawaiian.

Most teen-agers around Ridgemont listed two requirements for a quality prime-time show – authenticity and laughs. Shows like Taxi60 Minutes and Lou Grant had their fans, but one program that drew especially high marks that year was Magnum, P.I. Many students, particularly males, admired the series’ hero, a self-effacing, fast-driving young detective living under a rich support system in Hawaii. But would they go so far as to carry his mannerisms and dress back to school with them?

“No way,” scoffed Kevin Arnold, a 16-year-old junior. “That’s real seventh-grade stuff. I used to say ‘Nano-nano’ and ‘Wild and crazy guy,” but not any more. I figured if you’ve got an idol, you’ve got an idol, but I’d never pick somebody on TV.”

In Kevin’s opinion, “TV is good for news, and that’s it. When John Lennon got shot, I felt very grateful to be able to hear the reports and feel everybody’s remorse. My problem is with the ‘regular’ shows. They’re so slick, so stamp-’em-out, that they can only be enjoyed by very old people or very young children.” His 8-year-old sister’s favorite shows, he said, areThe Love Boat and General Hospital. “She used to watch The Dukes of Hazzard until it got too stupid for her.”

Ironically, the more popular shows among kids are the ones on at the latest hours. While there still remains a suspicion of the new Saturday Night Live (“The reruns are better”) andFridays, many teen-agers stay up even later for SCTV Comedy Network. (“It’s better writing, not all dope jokes.”) Faring less well were the late-night rock shows like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. “I used to stay up late and think it was such an exciting thing to see my favorite bands playing on television,” said Kevin. “But it got so boring seeing everybody lip-synching their new singles. I’d rather get some sleep.”

While only two per cent of the populace own videocassette records, there seemed a trend around Ridgemont to pool together with those who did. Just last year I was invited to one exclusive video party thrown by a 17-year-old senior named Vince, who had borrowed his parents’ VCR for the evening. His older brother had been sent out to rent an X-rated movie from a local video store. Six young males in various grades of high school all waited eagerly for the tape to arrive. But big brother came home empty-handed. The store had demanded a $50 deposit, more cash than he had on hand. The party quickly broke up when the kids realized they were faced with an evening of sitting around watching regular TV.

Indeed, for most kids of driving age, television was simply a friend they’d outgrown. “It’s something to do,” said Erin Davis, 17. “I can’t picture myself saying, ‘I’m going to watch TV tonight.’ It’s boring. It’s inactive. If there’s something going on, I’ll do it. TV is the last alternative.”

So, while the daily national television viewing average rises (up nine minutes from the 1978-79 season, according to Nielsen figures), teens continue to watch the least of any age group. Most recent figures, in fact, show a drop in their TV viewing time. Why? Alienated, perhaps. Busier, definitely. If Ridgemont was any example, and I suspect it was, most teen-agers feel that the same medium that entertained them as children underestimated them as young adults.

While it may be a relief to parents that their teen-agers’ dependence on television is currently on the wane, many of the highest-rated shows still deal with adolescence.

I remember a time back at Ridgemont when I had arrived home with Erin Davis and two other friends who’d just gotten off work at a nearby mall. It was late and the girl’s house was dark save for the glow of the living-room television. Her parents were engrossed in a TV-movie, “Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker.”

“Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad,” Erin greeted them. “This is an important part,” said her father, holding up a single finger. “Hold on for the commercial.”

Erin retired to her room. I asked her later if she felt that television connected with her life at all.

“Not really,” she said. “You get older and you spend time with friends. You learn that Fantasy Island is just a substitute for other things.” She paused. “But sometimes, when it’s Saturday night and I don’t have a date, Ricardo Montalban starts looking pretty good…”

Courtesy of TV Guide – Cameron Crowe – January 16, 1982