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Channel Surfing for Nostalgia

Teenage soap operas aren’t just for kids. They’re luring droves of post-pubescent viewers too.

Email icon  jaa345@nyu.edu

Teenage soap operas aren’t just for kids. They’re luring droves of post-pubescent viewers too.

The Fox Network’s teenager melodrama, “The O.C.,” has attracted waves of fans, but many overgrown adolescents are also tuning into “Degrassi: The Next Generation” on The N network. Fans of the original “Degrassi: Junior High” have shown that they still harbor a crush on the Canadian television series and have subsequently begun watching the new installment.

“I consider myself an adult, and I watch ‘Degrassi’ seriously,” said Mark Polger, a 30-year-old university librarian who runs one of the show’s leading fan Web sites. “Most of the issues on the show are just as relevant today, and they were when I was a teenager.”

The cult popularity of shows like “Degrassi: The Next Generation” among older viewers may be part of ’80s culture being retro cool. They laugh at the show with the same chuckle they give when they hear a song by teen queen Debbie Gibson.

Roughly 180,000 of the show’s 450,000 average viewers are outside of the target audience of 12 to 17 year olds, according to Nielsen Media Research. Carried by The N, a digital cable channel for teenagers, the show has become the network’s flagship program. The Nielsen ratings are impressive, considering the network is delivered into only 42 million American households through digital cable.

The Canadian series rose to popular acclaim when the kids of Degrassi entered junior high in 1987. The series distinguished itself from other shows for teenagers through a more gritty portrayal of troubled teenagers. Plotlines entered new television territory by delving into previously taboo subjects like drugs, pregnancy, rape and AIDS.

But the realistic portrayal of racy subjects has drawn a dedicated fan base of overgrown children in their 20s and 30s that now follow “The Next Generation.” The show’s creators and broadcasters are probably aware of its cache with an older audience and work to exploit it. That could be why Joey (Pat Mastroianni), Snake (Stefan Brogren) and three other stars from the original series resurface in the new show as adults. The return of staple “Degrassi” characters likely lures many old fans back to the show.

“It’s done to keep the old fans interested in the new show,” said Polger, who works at the Waterloo University Library in Canada. He started Degrassi Online: The Unofficial Web site in 1997 so he could organize all the show’s information for the community that follows the show. It can be found at www.degrassi.ca.

Polger turned his love of the show into an intellectual pursuit when he based his honors thesis on the show while attending Concordia University in Montreal. He compared “Degrassi” and “Beverly Hills: 90210,” the prime-time hit about California high schoolers with unlimited checking accounts and a bottomless pit of problems. He remembers receiving a grade of around 84 percent from his teacher.

Although Polger watches the show with a critical eye, many others turn the show on so they can switch their brains off.

“Kids’ shows require my lowest thought process,” Stephanie Houtz, a 25-year-old and avid children’s-show watcher said. “I don’t have to think very hard to get what they do to make me laugh. They’re really easy to veg out to.”

Houtz said that “Degrassi,” like “Beverly Hills: 90210,” appeals to her because it is so ridiculous.

“It’s supposed to be so realistic, and it’s so, so, so not!” She chalks-up the show’s cult appeal to its “cheesiness factor.” Shows like that are not as sophisticated as current hits like “The O.C.,” and that’s part of their broad appeal.

“I think that half the reason we watch that stuff is so we can reminisce,” Houtz says. “‘Degrassi’ draws the older people because they can laugh about themselves back in the ’80s.”

And although “The Next Generation” is aired from 8 to 9 p.m. on The N, back-to-back episodes are also broadcast at 10 p.m. and again at 2 a.m. The show makes excellent entertainment for Generation X and Y viewers who are channel surfing for some nostalgia.

“I remember being in high school and being so worked up about stuff like that,” Houtz said. “Like the cutest guy in school sees you, and you have a big stain on your shirt. Now it seems like the stupidest thing to worry about!”

jaa345@nyu.edu (917) 771-0770