Nothing's better than the real thing, baby" is the summer tune for many in TV, including The WB. But in its case, the network is not talking about a reality show, but the July 12 launch of its Coca-Cola-sponsored drama, Young Americans.
Staying true to its counterprogramming roots, The WB will not fire up another Survivor or Millionaire this summer. But, with the help of Coke, the network will instead back an alternative and probably more pricey option to reality-driven shows-a teen serial about star-crossed lovers.
"Traditionally, reality programming has been the answer for summer because it's cheaper. But Young Americans is an attempt on our part to do something that's not being done-putting a show into production specifically for summer, with no guarantee of a longer run," notes Jordan Levin, The WB's executive vice president.
Crafting a scripted series for a run of just a few months is a rarity. Networks usually only get their first glimpse of real profits when their shows are in their second and third repeats-when advertising money flows and production costs temporarily stop.
Although sponsorships conjure up visions of strong-armed product placements, Coke's involvement was refreshing, network heads and show producers agree.
"One of the things that people fail to recognize is that producers want real products in their shows. They can't stand having the fake beer or fake cola can," Levin insists. "If anything, we had to pull [the writers] back [from writing Coke placements into scenes]. I mean sometimes they really overshot things."
Take the pilot's critical boy-meets-girl opening sequence, when one of the characters, Scout (played by Mark Famiglietti), offers charming girl Bella (played by Kate Bosworth) a Coke. That was a tip of the hat from show creators to sponsor, not the other way around.
"I wrote the opening as like a 'Hey, thanks, guys,'" says Steven Antin, the creator and executive producer of Young Americans. "The first time I wrote it [Scout] was putting air into his bike tire.and one thing led to another, and I thought he should toast [Bella] and she should toast him. Then I thought, 'Oh my God, this looks like a Coke commercial.'"
But "in no way has the sponsorship insinuated any sort of opinions about anything we're doing," claims Antin. There were no more Coke sightings in the pilot, although there was that Pepsi machine originally in the pilot tape that didn't make it to the final cut (B & C, July 3).
Coke and The WB's partnership agreement was similar to Procter & Gamble's helpful but largely hands-off policy in the development of The WB's fall entry, Gilmore Girls. P & G was one of several advertisers to ante up $1 million to The WB last season for the creation of family-friendly programming.
"Coke never imposed any sense of dictating what should or what should not be done," stresses Levin, who "would love to continue this pattern of finding sponsors for shows."
For that to happen, though, "it's got to be a show that we believed in," he adds. "We would never take an opportunity of having a sponsor offer to do something for us just to get some product on TV."
Young Americans' limited run does not foreclose the possibility of a longer stint. It is set as a summer show, but if it is successful, The WB will plug it into either its mid-season or summer lineup next year.
Young Americans will air on the same night as CBS' Survivor, but not in direct competition, so Levin is upbeat about the slotting.
"If anything, we believe Survivor is bringing more people to Wednesday nights, and our show is on at 9 p.m. [directly following Survivor]," he says. "Yes, Survivor is CBS' youngest-skewing show, and yes they're doing better 18-34 [presenting the possibility that CBS could hold onto some of that crowd]. But our audience is different from CBS."
Young Americans, also executive-produced by Joe Voci and Scott Sanders, is pure WB. Joining romantically challenged Scout and Bella in a cozy New England boarding-school setting are several other troubled but just as easy on-the-eyes characters. One student, Will Krudski (Rodney Scott), previously appeared in several episodes of Dawson's Creek.
Also boosting Young Americans' renewal chances is the fact that several teen-oriented dramas have folded over the last season. Recent cancellations have included Beverly Hills 90210, Party of Five, Time of Your Life and Freaks and Geeks.
"At the same time last year, everybody was bringing out teen shows. But with people now retreating, that allows us a clean shot at the demographic we go after: the 12-34 audience," says Levin.
Young Americans is produced by Mandalay Television with Columbia TriStar.