We're being watched

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You can almost hear the cries of joy echoing from coast to coast. It's the sound of giddy Fox execs, thrilled (and relieved) to know that their show resonates with young women, the coveted demographic known in the industry as 18 to 34, and the exact crowd the network hoped to deliver when it introduced Ally to advertisers last season.

Chalk one up for the programmers.

Each spring, as another television season comes to an end, a new drama starts to unfold. Network programmers begin to disassemble the prime-time puzzle, replacing lackluster entries with shiny new ones that may ultimately deliver more viewers to advertisers. At the same time, TV executives who have invested millions of dollars developing new shows for the fall lineup begin their courting ritual, convincing advertisers that their shows and their time slots are best positioned to attract audiences. At stake: some $6 billion in prime-time revenues from some of the nation's biggest advertisers. And at the heart of it all: the viewers, a sometimes fickle, sometimes predictable lot with the power to make or break careers with the simple click of the remote.

"The chips are high on both sides," says Tom DeCabia, senior vice president of Paul Schulman Company, a New York City-based media firm that buys TV time for advertisers. "If we make the wrong buys for our clients, it's like having the wrong broker investing your money. On the network side, it's safer to be the Yankee manager under George Steinbrenner than the head of programming on the West Coast."

Sound a bit hyperbolic? Collectively, the networks canceled 30 of the 35 shows introduced last fall. With a win-loss record like that, you don't need to be Steinbrenner to say: "You're fired." Meanwhile, cable continues to nibble away: the top three networks now claim less than half of all prime-time TV watchers.

That's why targeting shows to specific audiences has become an even more important enterprise. Program producers like to think they create shows with no specific audience in mind, that good writing and acting will attract millions of devoted viewers, that creativity, not focus groups, is the key to making the top-ten list. But today, even the definition of a hit has changed. Years ago, hits were shows that ranked in the top 20 among all viewing households. Now a show is considered a winner if it consistently delivers a demographic. The WB's Dawson's Creek, for example, received only a 9 percent share of all households, but was dubbed a hit because it reeled in teen viewers. Similarly, Ally McBeal, with a 15 share, was considered a winner because it appealed to young women. "Demographics are ratings and ratings are everything," says one network executive.

It's still a big numbers game. Even if producers and writers don't have a certain viewer in mind, the suits do. They have to. That is, if the networks expect advertisers to pony up $100,000 or more for a 30-second spot, they have to be able to say whose eyeballs the sponsors are paying for. (Prices range from $75,000 to $450,000, depending on the show, the slot, and the night.) With that in mind, we decided to zero in on five new fall shows and assemble a profile of each program's targeted demographic, with the help of the shows' writers, producers and network researchers, as well as other unnamed sources in the field. Here's who they say will be watching, come prime time.

TWO OF A KIND Fridays, 8:00 to 8:30 PM on ABC. The anchor of the "TGIF" lineup of four family sitcoms and ABC's version of "Must See TV" for kids. Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen of Full House fame star as twin sisters with opposite personalities. Early buzz on Two of a Kind brands it a hit, mostly because of the popularity of the Olsen twins, the queens of tweens. "Viewers have a history with the Olsens," says Mitch Metcalf, ABC's senior vice president of research and planning. "Millions watched them grow up on Full House so you have a lot of teenagers now who remember them when they were kids. You also have the kids of today, those who are in the 2-to-11 group. They didn't see them when they were on Full House, but they have seen them in syndication and videos."

There's nothing about the TGIF lineup that "Keenan," a 10-year-old fifth-grader from New Jersey, doesn't like. Boy Meets World and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch are two of her favorite shows. They're also on during her favorite night of the week, when her friend Charlotte can sleep over and they can stay up later than usual, then get up early Saturday morning and watch cartoons.

Keenan's room is filled with stuffed animals, all sizes and shapes. Every surface in her room-her bureau, her desk, her shelves-is filled with either candles shaped like wizards, or little toys she picked up from kids meals at McDonald's and Burger King. They're her two favorite places to eat, although she did enjoy the scallion pancakes and sesame noodles the other night when her family went to a Chinese restaurant-her first foray into ethnic cuisine. Keenan has an American Girl doll collection set up at the tea table in the corner of her bedroom. She hasn't played with it for some time now, but she's not ready for mom to put it away just yet. She's outgrown Barbie and friends as well, but Beanie Babies are still cool, and she's always on the prowl, searching for ones she doesn't already have.

When Keenan is not at school or out playing or competing in the girls' soccer league, she's usually listening to the Backstreet Boys or the Spice Girls, and doing her nails. She collects all the funky shades: blue, green, orange, black, yellow. She also likes to write letters to her friends and decorate them with stickers and glitter. Keenan's an avid reader; she just finished the Full House series, and is about to start another series called The Saddle Club. She still likes to color, and loved The Parent Trap. But her favorite activity of all is to play with her dog.

MARTIAL LAW Saturdays, at 9:00 to 10:00 pm on CBS. Tongue-in-cheek action show featuring Hong Kong kung-fu superstar Sammo Hung, who teams up with two Los Angeles cops for some crime-fighting fun. If CBS's reputation for attracting "older viewers" is true, Sammo should play well with male boomers. Carlton Cuse, 39, creator and co-executive producer, thinks he knows exactly who'll be tuning in.

"Chad" is a 25-year-old white male living in an urban environment, maybe Kansas City, Missouri. He shares an apartment with female roommates-friends, not lovers. He's college-educated and works in sales, making about $50,000 a year. Chad leases a car-a white BMW 325i convertible-but he's buried on the payments.

He splits his time between two girlfriends who don't know the other exists. He took one of them to the Lilith Fair (it was a "relationship requirement"); luckily, she didn't bump into his other chick at the concert. He feigns interest in music by Sarah McLachlan and other girl rockers, but when he's with the boys he cranks his real loves: Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day and Radiohead. Chad's work environment is pretty casual, so he usually wears J. Crew to the office. He switches to jeans and other casual Gapwear on the weekends when he's playing basketball with friends. (In a few years, he'll be heading to the links instead of the blacktop.) He wears Asics sneaks because Nike is too ubiquitous-he likes to boast that he has no swooshes in his wardrobe. We won't mention the other logos-Polo, for example-that adorn some of his shirts.

Chad pays attention to his appearance; he works out regularly at the gym, probably someplace like Crunch or Equinox. In the winter, he goes skiing in Colorado. The martial-arts feature of Martial Law appeals to his own physicality. He wears expensive sunglasses and spends money to get a good haircut. He drinks 2 percent milk (skim milk is just so tasteless) but is more likely to buy Frosted Flakes than Total. He eats good ol' American junk food like McDonald's and Domino's; his roommates would probably have to show him how to turn on the gas stove.

On Saturday nights, Chad watches television with one of his girlfriends, munching on nachos and drinking Corona, and avoiding the swarm of 18-year-olds at the movie theaters. His living room is straight out of an Ikea catalog. Chad likes action movies with comedy-Jackie Chan flicks, Lethal Weapon. He's got a sense of humor and goes out with girls who appreciate that. Chad travels a lot for work; his three credit cards are linked to his frequent-flyer accounts so he can rack up points faster. He has a home computer as well as a laptop for travel, and often buys stuff over the Internet. Just the other day, he ordered the latest Smashing Pumpkins CD.

LIVING IN CAPTIVITY Fridays, at 8:00 to 8:30 PM on Fox. From Murphy Brown creators Diane English and Joel Shukovsky comes another sitcom, this one about three couples who forsake the city for life in the civilized world of the suburbs. Executive producer Tom Palmer says he writes the show for one person: himself. "I grew up in the suburbs of Northern California," he says. "The couples are my age. I could relate to everything they go through, from wondering who has the nicer car to who has the better sex life." Palmer wouldn't cough up his image of the viewer most likely to tune in, so we asked around. With the help of some industry experts, here's our portrait of the couple Fox is banking on.

"Lynn and Joe Marks" didn't exactly want to move out to the suburbs. But they wanted more space and a safer neighborhood for their son and daughter. Their son, now a teenager, is old enough to remember how cool the city was, and now, years later, won't forgive his parents for "selling out." Meantime, the additional space has been great, although the couple's bedroom door is still too close to their son's room. If they're not falling asleep to Coolio or Puff Daddy, they're trying to block out the computerized karate chops of the home version of Street Fighter.

The couple works in the city-with traffic, a 60-minute drive. On the weekends, they take turns shuttling the kids between sports meets and mall visits. Life in suburbia is great (even with the lawn mowing and snow shoveling), except for occasional freaky neighbors who need to size everyone up. Before you know it, a mindless conversation about bunting at their daughter's softball game degenerates into name calling and fisticuffs-by the adults. (It would be pretty funny if it weren't happening to them.) At work, back in the urban calm, the Markses are aficionados of lattes and scones at the corner Starbuck's or the latest trendy cafe near the office. They've got three phone lines at home, four computers (the kids each need their own to check e-mail) and are trying to save money for college. They like to shop in department stores like Macy's or through catalogs because it's easiest, and to browse in little artsy shops in town.

CONRAD BLOOM Mondays, 8:30 to 9:00 pm on NBC. A workplace comedy about a hotshot art director catering to the needs of his friends, family and co-workers. This show may fit in fine at NBC (home of Seinfeld, Frasier and ER), which has burnished its image as the network that can woo all the key adult demographics. So who's going to be setting up the TV trays and the snacks? We enlisted the aid of executive producer and creator Marco Pennette, 31, a former New Yorker now based in Los Angeles, who also created Caroline in the City.

"Jonathan" (not Jon, he's trying to grow out of that) is a 30-year-old single white guy, living in New York City. He's juggling a career and a love life. His friends' most common questions are "How's your job?" and "Who are you sleeping with?" He's renting a one-bedroom apartment but will probably buy a co-op or a condo in the next few years. He doesn't own a car-who needs one in the city?-and works long hours on Wall Street, making $75,000 to $100,000 a year. He likes to go out on Thursday nights, mainly to martini bars where the yuppies-after-work scene is in full swing. He loved the movie Swingers and drinks Cosmopolitans.

His apartment has a few nice pieces of furniture, maybe a decent dresser or desk, courtesy of the folks. He just bought a real bed; he'd been sleeping on a futon since college. The rest of the stuff is Ikea, although he doesn't plan to purchase anything more from them. Time to upgrade to quality furniture that will complement his future co-op, perhaps something from Ethan Allen.

Jonathan lives alone-if he had a steady girlfriend, they'd probably live together. He's starting to make real money (he even established a financial portfolio recently), but still uses cheap shampoo like Suave and relies on his faithful barber for a good cut. He shops at Banana Republic and owns two or three great suits from Barney's. He accessorizes with different ties and shirts to make it through the work week. He has no time to shop by catalog (besides, he likes to touch the merchandise before plunking down his cash).

Jonathan plays racquetball at a gym near work and rollerblades with friends on the weekends. He eats out a lot, or orders takeout. Good thing-he has four mismatched glasses, a few plates and a whole drawerful of take-out soy sauce packets in his kitchen. There's also an expensive corkscrew for those bottles of merlot. A box of Cheerios is on the kitchen table, next to a few empty cans of imported beer. He still enjoys plopping himself down on the couch with a bag of Doritos and a couple of cold ones.

Jonathan owns a computer; 80 percent of the time he uses it for work, 10 percent for reading and writing e-mail, and 10 percent for checking out porno sites on the Internet (give him a break, he doesn't have a steady girlfriend). He travels for work and vacations in the Caribbean with the girl of the moment. Many of his friends are getting married; he wonders when he'll be next.

FELICITY Tuesdays, 9:00 to 10:00 pm on the WB. This youth drama tells the story of Felicity Porter who chucks a college career at Stanford to follow a boy to NYU. The guy doesn't remember her name when she shows up, but she decides to stay in New York anyway, embarking on a tumultuous path of self-discovery. Early reviews tag this the potential hit of the season. Media buyers predict the show will resonate among preteen and teenage girls, dedicated viewers of romance and school drama. The show's co-creator, J.J. Abrams, says he writes the show with himself and his friend (and co-creator) Matt Reeves in mind. Indeed, if the drama and characters are as real as the hype, Felicity could have crossover potential with the guys, who may start watching with their girlfriends. We asked our experts to weigh in on the viewers the WB is banking on.

"Samantha," is a 16-year-old junior in high school who lives in the Midwest. She buys bell-bottoms and skater pants from "cool" stores like Urban Outfitters and Pacific Sunwear. Most of her friends wear Tommy Hilfiger or Calvin Klein jeans, or stuff from the Gap. Some of her friends are into rap, Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg, but that's basically a boy thing. Samantha's more into the Beastie Boys, Sublime, Jewel and Everclear. When she's not listening to one of those CDs on her new Philips Magnavox four-speaker, three-CD changer stereo, she's online checking her e-mail. (It doesn't matter what kind of computer it is as long as it's, like, fast, has lots of memory, and comes with a CD-ROM drive.) When she's not e-mailing school friends or playing solitaire, Samantha is on AOL, checking out the lyrics to some songs. Like, just the other day, she looked up the lyrics to "Intergalactic" by the Beastie Boys and "One Week" by Barenaked Ladies.

She's seen Titanic twice, and, yeah, Leo is cute. But, like, a lot of the guys make fun of him, think he's girly and stuff like that. After school, Samantha and her friends will hop in a friend's car and go downtown or to the mall. They sometimes stop for a bite at Subway (that's where most of her friends work, so the food is free) or Little Caesar's or Wendy's or this Mediterranean place called Jerusalem Garden, 'cause the food's lighter and still tastes good. Sometimes she strolls over to Bath & Body Works or Victoria's Secret to check out the new scents of lotions. Nothing beats the Pear Glace, though.

Samantha watches Dawson's Creek religiously. Some of her friends think the actors are too old to play teens, but they watch anyway. It's real and the characters' lives are more messed up than hers or her friends. She used to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that got cheesy after the first few episodes. The guys watch it because of the girl. But, like, nobody misses South Park. The characters are just so innocent and cute-looking and so bizarre.

Samantha hates Hanson and the Backstreet Boys (you either hate them or love them). She buys mostly Cover Girl makeup (her mom buys her Clinique foundation and powder), but it doesn't really matter who makes it as long as it works well and is reasonable. All in all, there's not much adult stuff she hates, except for people who judge teenagers and think that just because they're "just looking," they're going to steal something.

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