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Why youth rules Hollywood

From teen movies to TV and pop music, ever-younger stars are shaping

Pup fiction. Teen-sploitation. The "whatever" school of creativity. These are but a few of the names bandied about by critics in an effort to characterize the hormonal haze that has settled over the entertainment industry, from television to films and popular music.

Youth has always held special sway over popular culture. But now, baby-boomer offspring, the "echo" generation, as they're being called, are making their presence felt. Advertisers are waking up to their potential on the upstart teen-targeted networks: WB, Fox, and UPN.

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Movie studios are discovering they can hire young TV stars for a pittance compared with the cost of established marquee names, pull in their loyal small-screen following, and reap a windfall. "Scream," the low-budget ($15 million) film that launched this trend in 1996, pulled in more than $100 million.

The names on the pop-music scene - Brandy, Jewel, Britney Spears - could be confused for a high-school cheerleading team, as ever-younger stars provide the soundtrack for a teen generation some 60 million strong, nearly three times the size of the twentysomethings of so-called Generation X. Credits at the end of WB's hit new college show, "Felicity," run like a who's who of teen musicians.

Advertisers are keen to court loyalty at ever-younger ages, explains Stacey Lynn, vice president of broadcast research at TN Media in New York. In addition, many advertisers say they believe that younger viewers change brands more easily than adults.

But underneath the financial incentives lies a deeper cultural explanation. "Younger is associated with cutting edge, with what's hip and now," Ms. Lynn notes.

"People want to be associated with that image," she adds, because it goes to the heart of "all our mythic themes, the most essential things we buy into in our culture."

Given how little emphasis there has been on teens for a generation, there is also an inevitability to the mining of minors, suggests Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Teens today haven't had a language they could relate to," he says. For the first time in a long time, "these shows [and films] are giving a vocabulary to the teenage wasteland," much as rock music did for the boomer generation 30 years ago."

The best teen TV shows, such as "Felicity" and "Dawson's Creek," make a genuine contribution to the culture, Mr. Thompson argues. "Many of these shows are extremely articulate," he says. "Wouldn't it be great if many of the kids we worry about getting into drugs and sex would do this kind of talking instead?"

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TV shows speak to teens

A desire to give voice to a new generation is close to the heart of two of the biggest names on the scene. Kevin Williamson, the creator of "Scream" and the popular teen TV drama "Dawson's Creek," says he didn't set out to exploit the teen audience.

"I want to compliment them," Mr. Williamson says. "I believe in them and ... I want [the shows] to be smart and clever and sophisticated."

Joss Whedon, creator and executive producer of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," goes one step further. "I love myth-making," he says, "and for me, myths really took hold in adolescence." He believes that the teen years, so critical in the development of an adult's view of the world, have been underrepresented in popular media.

"When we start to grow up is when our myths really, really take hold. The experience I had of the fictions that I loved [as a teen] was the most intense experience of my life, and I love giving that back," he adds.

The emphasis on being just the right age can be tough on those who aren't. Riley Weston, who was hired for her supposed teenage perspective as a writer on "Felicity," left in the midst of a scandal when it was discovered she was in her 30s and not the 18-year-old she claimed to be.

Fox recently held a "no experience necessary" tryout for teens-only to fill some 20 teenage roles in coming pilot shows - a turnabout for an industry long accustomed to hiring twentysomething actors to play teens.

Beyond that, many older performers and writers are finding themselves looking for work, often at the peak of their creative abilities. Top actresses from Meryl Streep to Michelle Pfeiffer complain about the dearth of roles for mature women - while the age of "maturity" appears to ratchet downward every year.

A growing number of performers can be found "preparing for the future" at mid-career, in the words of TV star Kelsey Grammer, who renewed his love of theater by starring in a 20th anniversary stage production of the musical "Sweeney Todd." Grammar joins a raft of other actors, including Annette Bening ("Hedda Gabler") and Teri Hatcher ("Cabaret") who have braved mixed or withering critical response to their efforts at moving from TV or film into theater.

Older box-office stars (Bruce Willis in "Armageddon," Anthony Hopkins in "Zorro," Tommy Lee Jones in "Men in Black") have faced the inevitable by taking roles as mentor characters who pass the baton on screen to young protgs.

Teen flicks: a lifesaver for the industry

Many industry observers see this frantic grab for the pubescent audience as evidence of the desperate state of much of today's entertainment industry.

"The studios need to find a new way to do business or they will be out of business," says Christopher Lanier, the head of Viagraph Productions, a film analysis and consulting business.

He says that after several years of losing money searching in vain for the big blockbuster, the industry has turned in a big way to teen flicks that are cheap to make (between $10 million and $20 million) but lucrative at the box office ("I Know What You Did Last Summer" made $72 million).

Industry analysts note that as the entertainment universe has exploded with options, TV networks, film studios, and music companies are all in transition, scrambling to adapt to bloated costs, decreasing profits, and upstart technologies such as the Internet, which threaten to destroy present business strategies altogether.

Targeting certain groups to develop loyalty has become critical to networks' survival, says ABC's Alan Wurtzel, the senior vice president of brand management and research. He says teens are key.

"We've got to do this quickly because younger viewers ... are much less likely to be network oriented," he explains, adding, "Go talk to ... teenagers; the notion of ABC, NBC, CBS to them is much, much different" than it is for the generation that preceded them.

But is it entertaining?

This has led to a TV season dominated by youth. Even CBS, a haven for mature viewers (says chief Les Moonves, "We won't desert our core viewers") replaced "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," a favorite of older viewers, with the action-oriented police show "Martial Law" in hope of attracting a younger, male audience.

A few voices suggest that the answer lies beyond any single gimmick. "If you're looking at it from the audience's point of view," says UPN president Dean Valentine, "audiences don't care about strategies. Audiences care about shows. That's what they're watching."

David Hill, the chairman of Fox, notes that success ultimately boils down to entertainment value for the audience. "I believe that we're going to move into a new phase [of targeting audiences] ... called a 'psychographic,' " he says. Ultimately, studios and networks will "start looking at the mind-set of the consumer, rather than the age."

All of which suggests that legendary producer Irving Thalberg was on to something when he noted, "The only thing that can doom Hollywood is bad pictures."

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