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TV's Teen Class of '98

Shows about teens are some of the most talked about on TV. Here's a look at the messages they send to viewers.

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The teens on "Dawson's Creek" sound more like graduate students at an urban university than 10th-graders in a resort-town high school. The family of teens and early 20-year-olds on Fox's "Party of Five" faces everything from life-threatening illness to alcoholism - without the customary parental units to guide them. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one superskilled teen who manages to fight the forces of darkness without breaking a nail.

All these teens and many more on TV are empowered, out-of-the-ordinary, and beautiful. They talk like people twice their age, and most of them are female.

And there is a reason for all this. A leader in teen programming is the WB (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, Felicity, 7th Heaven, and Sister, Sister are all WB). Garth Ancier, the director of WB programming says, "We realized that when you're starting a new television network, just as when you're starting a new brand of toothpaste, you need to aim at younger users because they're the ones who are most likely to try a new product.

"We have geared our programming toward the younger end of the spectrum, trying to create a brand that's user-friendly to a younger audience." The characters in these shows are given adult intellects and adult dialogue because, Mr. Ancier says, it's more interesting to young viewers.

But all this sophistication troubles many experts. "Many of these shows have marginal moral lessons that might be slightly helpful.... [But] TV gives standards most kids can't live up to," says Cynthia Scheibe, a psychology professor and a media-literacy expert at Ithaca College in New York. "Teens are so vulnerable to these issues.... It's a setup for kids to feel inadequate - and always wanting more [material goods] to make them feel better. Even in a show like Party of Five, which is one of the best, these kids are wealthy; they dress too well."

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