Representations of adolescence in contemporary American Teen TV and its online fandom

Thesis (M.A.), 2007
75 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table Of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Contemporary Concepts and Pop-cultural Representations of American Adolescence
2.1. Definitions and Developments
2.2. The Child/Adolescent as ‘Other’
2.3. TV Conceptions of Adolescence

3. Contemporary American Teen TV
3.1. Definition and Short History
3.2 ‘Not-Quite-Adult’ TV
3.3 The WB/The CW, Teen TV and the ‘Youthful Adult Audience’
3.4. “Television Overflow”

4. Contemporary Fandom – Online TV Fandom
4.1 Definitions
4.2. Television Fandom – Teen TV Fandom
4.3. The Fan as ‘Other’
4.4. Fan-cultural Productions
4.5. Case Studies – Television Without Pity and Fan Forum:
4.5.1. Television Without Pity (TWoP) -
4.5.2. Fan Forum –

5. Connecting the Concepts of Teendom and Fandom

6. Case Studies – Teen-Series
6.1. Dawson’s Creek
6.1.1. The Series
6.1.2. The Fandom
6.2. Veronica Mars
6.2.1. The Series
6.2.2. Fandom

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Popular teen television programs and fandoms centered on these programs are seldom taken seriously and often denigrated. Participation in online community is commonly met with similar mockery and those who do it on a regular basis are encouraged to “get a life”. The result of the combined biases against television in general and teen television in particular, online community, and media fandom has an extraordinarily marginalizing effect on participants in television fan community websites and yet their number is constantly growing and their cultural work is diversifying. And increasingly cases are made out for Teen TV as quality TV and fan communities as “intellectually charged spaces devoted to significant cultural texts” (Stilwell 2003).

Less than two decades ago Henry Jenkins wrote in Textual Poachers - Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992, p. 18): “From the perspective of dominant taste, fans appear to be frighteningly out of control, undisciplined and unrepentant, rogue readers. Rejecting aesthetic distance, fans enthusiastically embrace favored texts and attempt to integrate media representations into their own social experience.” For a long time fan culture only became visible in distorted forms, through media stereotypes of crazed fans, who have too much time and money and no ‘life’. Thanks to the Internet and digital technology fan activity has flourished and diversified, providing space for highly individualized use of media texts while offering integration in a large community, and moving fandom from cult status toward the mainstream, with more and more Internet users engaged in some form of fan activity. Fans are becoming increasingly prevalent in contemporary everyday life, due in part to the continued focus on star culture, the increased space given to the airing of fan views by the traditional media, and the appropriation of core aspects of fan aesthetics by the culture industries themselves.

According to Jenkins (1998) one of the real potentials of cyberspace is that it is “altering the balance of power between media producers and media consumers.” He uses the term ‘ cultural participants ’ to include both professionals and amateurs because the distinction has become increasingly difficult to draw, echoing Finnegan’s (1989) view of them as continua relations. This new perspective challenges the traditional conceptualization in most works on the topic of fandom, which tend to treat ‘the fan’ as ‘other’ thereby distancing themselves and taking on a position of superiority, and failing to acknowledge the interconnectedness of non-fandom and fandom. Fan-identity occupies only a limited space in a person’s everyday life and influences and is influenced by its other aspects. Practices like research and critical analysis are used by both academics (in a professional context) and fans (in a leisure context), but while academic work is associated with a rational, empirical approach, fandom stands for an emotional, playful approach. This seems connected to the continual separation between the cultures of children/adolescents on the one hand and adults on the other hand, conceptualizing ‘the child’ as ‘other’, even though childhood and adult life are “inextricably intertwined” (Warner 1995). In fact, fandom combines aspects traditionally associated with children/adolescents (e.g.: playing games, ritualization, imitation, gushing) and adults (e.g.: critical analysis, campaigning, promotion). TV fandom, in particular, combines the cultural work of TV and the Net and thereby the imaginary capital of both Generations X and Y. Jenkins refers to this as “cultural convergence”, while Brooker speaks of “television overflow”.

From its role as a community speaking from the margins, its traditional association with leisure to its important role in Internet developments, fandom has always been strongly connected to adolescent culture. There is a convergence in the way both fans and adolescents are treated symbolically as ‘other’, in both the negative notions - fleeting, deviant, immature, self-absorbed, inferior - and the more positive ones - passionate, vital, idealistic, constantly evolving. Ironically, their combined marginality has led to a deeper sense of understanding and community and subsequently to a wider popularity. A closer look at online fandom shows that there is a strong awareness of the negative connotations of fandom in general and teen-fandom in particular, which makes the online community even more special to its participants, allowing them to engage in behavior, which they might feel embarrassed about but nevertheless enjoy, and which is often combined with critical analysis, often overlooked by critics. Since everyone has first hand experience of ‘adolescence’, everyone can relate and be ‘an expert’ on the topic on a very individual and personal level, which online fandom offers the space for. Susan Murray (2000) considers engagement in Teen TV-related online fanculture “an investment in an individual and communal understanding of teenage ... identity”.

The special place of ‘adolescence’ in American imagination and its complexity and contradictory nature, make the American context especially interesting for the study of this topic. In The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager (1999), Thomas Hine writes:

America created the teenager in its own image — brash, unfinished, ebullient, idealistic, crude, energetic, innocent, greedy, changing in all sorts of unsettling ways. A messy, sometimes loutish character who is nonetheless capable of performing heroically when necessary, the teenager embodies endless potential not yet hobbled by the defeats and compromises of life. The American teenager is the noble savage in blue jeans, the future in your face. (p. 10)

While any strict definition of ‘the teenager’ in terms of age would cover less than a decade, the current (western) cultural understanding of ‘youth’ seems to “welcome anyone from pre-teens to people in their forties” (Davis and Dickinson 2004, p. 11). The target audience of the new CW network, resulting from the merger of niche-networks WB and UPN and predominated by teen-series like Gilmore Girls, Smallville, One Tree Hill and Veronica Mars, is 18-34 - including members of Generations X and Y and seemingly excluding the bigger part of the actual ‘teens’. As Lawrence Grossberg (1992) puts it: “Youth today is caught in the contradictions between those who experience the powerlessness of their age and the generation of baby boomers who have attached the category of youth to their life trajectory, in part by redefining it as an attitude ...” (Teen TV, p. 11).

The following work will explore the convergence of teen television and the Internet and the underlying concepts of adolescence and fandom, focusing specifically on the American teen series Dawson’s Creek and Veronica Mars, both with predominantly female audience and fandom, and the accompanying fan-discussion and fan-work in the online fan-communities Fan Forum and Television Without Pity. In the first part I will define the three fields - fandom, adolescence and Teen TV - and review the relevant literature, paying special attention to the period of the late 1990s till now. The second part will examine two case studies of Internet fan-communities to examine the way they re-contextualize the television text and construct performance space. The third part of my research consists of two case studies of contemporary American teen-television to show the way the series are contextualized by their broadcasting space and its rhythms and temporalities, and how online fandom changes the possibilities of acquisition and the spaces provided for individual use of the media text. How do the different approaches to adolescence in the examined television texts influence the related fan approach and vice versa? How do the concepts of adolescence as life-stage and attitude/lifestyle work together? And given the social biases to both adolescence and fandom - what is the effect on the (female) media consumers who integrate Internet use and television viewership?

It is an important area of study for several reasons. It acknowledges the growing significance of fancultural production and its importance for the understanding of contemporary pop culture, and the value of the Internet as an innovative and fruitful source on television fan discourse. It brings together traditionally separated concepts that are essentially intertwined. This is an attempt to incorporate a fan view in an academic work to allow a deeper look in the fancultural practices.

2. Contemporary Concepts and Pop-cultural Representations of American Adolescence

During the last decades, the concepts of childhood, adolescence and what has recently been referred to as ‘young adulthood’, have proven to be a subject of increased interest for the American public and across various sciences including psychology, sociology and cultural studies. As Karen Brooks (2003) points out, ““[y]outh” has long been a contentious designation in both academic and public discourse facilitating debates about generationalism, ageism, and specificity” (p.1). The continuities and breaks in the notions of ‘adolescence’ in the last forty years, show how tightly interwoven and contradictory at once, the cultural conceptions and the representations of adolescence appear to be (Isensee 2003). My purpose here is not to add to the impressive body of work on adolescence, but to consider it in light of contemporary issues.

2.1. Definitions and Developments

“[N]o one is 12 years old, period. A person may be 14 physically, but 10 socially, 11 mathematically, and 12 in his or her skill with language”[1]. According to Richard A. Kasschau (1980), it is important to keep this variability in mind, while examining the problems of definition we experience “when we try to delimit the most frustrating, vexing, interesting, complex time in human development: the adolescent years” (p. 111). The term ‘adolescence’, which unlike puberty is culturally rather than biologically defined, is mostly used to describe the transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, overlapping with the term ‘youth’, which has increasingly replaced it as a more contemporary reflection of the changes in the understanding and interpreting of this transition. Those terms also overlap with the term ‘teenager’, which was only coined in the late 1930s, emerging with the awareness of the teenage years as a phase of life distinct form childhood and adulthood, and is based on the idea of the adolescent which makes it equally elusive, even though it seems to be more clearly defined in terms of age. Echoing Kasschau’s sentiment about the difficulty of defining adolescence taking into account its variability, Thomas Hine (1999) writes in his groundbreaking work on the history of the American adolescent experience, The Rise of the American Teenager: “The word teenager actually masks tremendous differences in maturity between different members of the age group, and within individuals as they pass through the teen years” (p. 15).

Adolescence as a special stage of the life span was not recognized until the end of the 19th century, and has often been described as a period of “storm and stress”. The concept developed with changes in western society that involved longer periods of education. Hine (1999) speaks of ‘the rise of the teenager’, meaning “the acceptance of the idea that youth is a time for experimentation and protracted preparation, usually in school” (p. 7). Erik Erikson (1950), inventor of the term ‘identity crisis’ and one of the most lastingly influential of the psychoanalytic thinkers of adolescence, defined it as a moratorium period in which to find your identity. In his book about the changing nature of maturity, Arrested Adulthood, James Coté explains that the young were increasingly technologically displaced from the economy and the teen years became a period of dependency and relative leisure, with young people becoming more important as consumers rather than as producers, resulting in an “increasingly idle youth population viewed as a problem in need of control” (p. 168). Hine (1999) writes that

[t]he teen years have become defined not as an interlude but rather as something central to life, a period of preparation and self-definition, a period of indulgence and unfocused energy. From the start, it has embodied extreme ambivalence about the people it described. ... Adults fear that teenagers will go totally out of control. The teenage years have been defined as, at once, the best and freest of life and a time of madness and despair. (p. 11)

There are strongly varying views on the actual time line of adolescence - especially about when it ends. It is typically viewed as beginning at puberty and ending at 18 or 21 years (legal adulthood), though there is increased talk about a period of late adolescence that extends well into what is now known as ‘young adulthood’. A specific time span cannot be defined, because it begins and ends at different ages for different individuals and its end seems to be marked by social and cultural changes that are highly variable. A widely recognized marker of entry into adulthood is when an individual first takes a full-time job and is economically independent, which today is mostly achieved over a long period of time rather than at one point (The Network on Transition to Adulthood 2003). An elusive and deeply contradictory concept, adolescence is often described as a period of rebellion, conflict and emotional upheaval on the one hand and as a time of excitement and challenge on the other hand, providing both opportunity and risk. It is most notably a time of constant transformation and change. “The upcoming generation keeps changing its shape – from tormentor to victim, from innocent to voluptuary, from consumer to creator, from menace to hope. It’s not surprising; teenagers quite literary embody change”[2].

According to a research conducted by The Network on Transitions to Adulthood called Between Adolescence and Adulthood: Expectations about the Timing of Adulthood, “adulthood no longer begins when adolescence ends. Although Americans believe that the transition to adulthood will begin in the late teens or early 20s, they have accepted that it often extends through the late 20s” (p. 3). Developmental psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, author of Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood, describes the only recently acknowledged but now widely studied ‘intermediate phase’, spanning the years from 18 until 25 and even beyond, as “a strange transitional never-never land between adolescence and adulthood”. He points out that this is a chance for young people “to savor the pleasures of irresponsibility, search their souls and choose their life paths”[3]. According to David Morrison, president of Twentysomething Inc., “[t]his is a generation that has grown up in an accelerated culture that forced them to be older before they were ready”[4] and now reclaims its youth. TIME magazine dedicated its January 2005 issue to this new demographic, with the headline “Meet the Twixters”, a term they use to refer to those young people who are, as the article puts it, “betwixt and between”. Canadian sociologist James Coté, author of several books about ‘twixters’, including Generation on Hold and Arrested Adulthood, argues that this ‘intermediate phase’ is “the harbinger of a basic transformation of adulthood” for which he coined the term “youthhood” (Coté 2000, p. 168).

Coté’s research into the nature of adolescence led him to consider that for many in the industrial world prolonged adolescence, and more recently ‘youth’, now takes up much, if not all, of what in earlier society would have been ‘adulthood’. It appears that an increasing number of people are not ‘growing up’ in the traditional sense of the word, which Coté’s analysis suggests is due to social, economic and technological changes. According to Hine (1999), “technological change and corporate restructuring force people well into the middle age to reassess aspects of identity they thought they had determined decades before” (p. 40-41), which may lead to them having to cope with similar crises as their adolescent counterparts. When Coté turned his attention to the study of the life stage that supposedly follows adolescence, he came to the realization that ‘adulthood’ is the least understood period of the life course and as vague a concept as adolescence. He argues that contrary to the widespread notion of adulthood as a reference point from which other life stages are judged, a static time of security, at least from the point of view of human development, it is “a hazardous and difficult journey for many people not a destination that is reached once and for all” (p. 1-2). Coté writes:

Ironically, the idea of adulthood requires the idea of adolescence to make sense, for “maturity” implies a previous “immaturity”, and being “grown up” implies having previously been childish or juvenile. It was only after the concept of adolescence took hold in the public mind that the notion of adulthood achieved any currency. (p. 1-2)

In her essay on the changing face of American teen television (2002, n.p.), Mary Celeste Kearney deals in depth with “youthfulness” as a common cultural sensibility, for which she sees the primary reasons in the fact that “adolescence now extends into both childhood and adulthood, thus blurring the boundaries traditionally associated with these lifestages” (p. 7). While the extension of adolescence backward into childhood can be explained by a variety of social and physiological transformations over the last century, the extension of adolescence forward into adulthood is more the result of changes in lifestyles, social practices, and economic conditions (Kearney 2004). As a result of these various social phenomena - children maturing physically earlier than ever before; advertisers encouraging them to adopt aspirational behavior at younger ages; increasing number of young adults prolonging adolescence via their enrollment in college, as well as graduate and professional schools; a considerable number of them postponing or rejecting the traditional rituals of adulthood and continuing to be drawn to various aspects of youth culture -

adolescence is no longer a lifestage associated with only those in their teenage years, and has become instead an identity that describes a much broader group of individuals. This expansion of adolescent identity works well in relation to the market place, since adolescence is an attitude and lifestyle that is particularly exploitable in American society.[5]

The redefinition of adolescence as attitude (‘You’re only as old as you feel’) is mostly traced back to the baby boomers, who as Lawrence Grossberg (1992) puts it, “have attached the category of youth to their life trajectory”[6]. But while the Baby Boom may have made everybody “think young”, Ihab Hassan (1968) points out that ‘the cult of adolescence’ is far from being an accident of our time: “... its history reverts to some of the most basic impulses in American experience. Behind it lies ... the American Dream, the vision of youth, hope and the open road” (p. 135).

2.2. The Child/Adolescent as ‘Other’

The ‘storm-and-stress model’, postulated in early psychoanalytic theories of adolescence, pathologized “the adolescent” and supported the belief that youthfulness is a form of incapacity caused by raging hormones (e.g., Blos, 1970; Freud, 1958; Hall, 1904). This view prevailed during the 20th century in several of the social sciences, indelibly stamping public consciousness about the adolescent and marginalizing the young from adult society, even though it has been exposed by recent research to be a myth resting on data that did not withstand scientific scrutiny, since it mostly relied on studies of severely troubled young people (Offer 1981; see also Coté 2000). According to Hine (1999), the concept of the teenager rests on this model and “the idea of the adolescent as a not quite competent person, beset by stress and hormones” (p. 4).

In her essay “Nothing Sells like Teen Spirit”, Karen Brooks points out the frequent representation of young people as ‘out of control’ and as threat to the hierarchical foundations of society as well as to themselves. Nevertheless there seems to be an equally strong conception of young people as ‘in need of protection’. The oppositional classification of young people as either dangerous or in danger pathologizes youth and youth culture. As Brooks (2003) writes, “[t]he category of “youth” endlessly shifts and slides between the binary opposites of adult/child, innocence/knowledge, and power/powerlessness, disrupting the essentialism of these psychological and social sites and causing discomfort in adult circles” (p. 2).

In her book Six Myths of Our Time, the distinguished English novelist and critic Marina Warner points out that childhood and adolescence have been continually mythologized. She writes that while children have always been cherished, the present ‘cult of the child’ strongly insists on children’s special intimate connection to a “free floating world of the imagination” (p. 49):

Contemporary child mythology enshrines children to meet adult desires and dreams, including Romantic and Surrealist yearnings to live through the imagination, with unfettered unrepressed fantasy; in turn, this presupposes that the child has access to a form of desirable wisdom ... a kind of supernatural irrationality. (p. 54)

According to Warner (1995), this view and its influence on the representation of the child has contributed to the continuing worship of the child and the prevailing of the “myth of [children’s] apartness, their difference, their unreachability” (p. 55), even though especially the myths of irrationality and innocence seem to blatantly disagree with the tough real-life experiences of children and adolescents, and their double role as both commodity and consumer (see Isensee 2003). Hine (1999) writes that the ‘teenage mystique’, due to the contradictory nature of the concept (including qualities adults find both exiting and terrifying), adolescent psychology’s establishing of the adolescent as a “special, unstable sort of creature” (p. 33) and the fact that young people today seem to be in a world of their own, defined by high school and pop culture, encourages adults to treat teenagers as if they were some strange and exotic species. According to Hine, one of the teenage mystique’s key assumptions is that what teenagers do does not really count. “Today’s teenagers serve a sentence of presumed immaturity, regardless of their achievements or abilities” (Hine 1999, p. 16). Several of the writers included in the anthology Teen TV (Davis/Dickinson 2004), like Kate Douglas, Kelly McWilliam and Neil Badminton, present feelings of general otherness and disenfranchisement faced by many adolescents as something common to the teen condition itself and argue that they are “by-products of various social practices which designate the ‘teen’ as a marginalized group in its own right” (p. 11).

Warner (1995) criticizes the continued oppositional differentiation between children/adolescents and adults because of the inextricable intertwining of childhood and adult life. As Hine (1999) writes, “... no one can help being young, and our society has dug a chasm between adolescence and true adulthood. But for the healthy individual, a sense of self that continues from childhood into adulthood manages to overcome such barriers” (p. 28).

The inseparability of childhood and adulthood is most obvious in the concept of the “Inner Child” used in popular psychology (e.g. Missildine 1963, Whitfield 1987, Taylor 1991). According to this concept, characteristics like a free spirit, emotionality, sensitivity, creativity, imagination and playfulness are assigned to our “child self”, referred to as the “Inner Child” which is our “True Self” that always resides within us, even when tamed, controlled, channeled, silenced, structured or replaced by a sophisticated, mature, serious, task oriented demeanor when we have ‘grown up’.

2.3. TV Conceptions of Adolescence

According to experts on child development, adolescence is the most individualistic life stage, characterized by a focus on one’s own development, which is an important part of the American fascination with the teen years. Alex Auburn’s and Joseph Grady’s study “Aliens in the Living Room: How TV Shapes Our Understanding of “Teens”” shows that scripted television exaggerates this tendency, casting teens as isolated from the larger social context and setting them apart from adults as a curiosity, threat etc. Several of Katharine Heintz-Knowles’ (2000) findings suggest that scripted entertainment programs portray teens as primarily interested in themselves, largely autonomous and capable of solving their problems without adult help. In her study, “Images of Youth: A Content Analysis of Adolescents in Prime-Time Entertainment Programming”, Heintz-Knowles writes that TV youth are most often shown dealing with problems relating to romantic relationships, friendships/popularity and family issues, and the most common activity identified for youth characters is socializing – at school and elsewhere.

In 2004 Mediascope published a study on the new youth-media environment in America titled Prime-Time Teens, a central concern of which was “to determine whether or not individuals involved in the production of television programming either for or about teenagers have developed anything that one might loosely call “a theory of adolescence” - that is, a reasonably coherent conceptualization of what teenagers are like” (p. 31). The researchers look at how the people involved in creating programming attractive to teens think of adolescents then consider how these theories of adolescence might influence the nature of the programs produced. The study was conducted during 2001 and 2002 by researchers at Stanford University and Lewis & Clark College and by independent researchers.

The 45 network executives, producers and writers interviewed for the study use a wide range of specific terms to describe today’s adolescents, such as intelligent, open-minded, skeptical, idealistic, intense, fun, but also short-sighted, egocentric, rebellious, pressured, worried about being judged, alienated, disenfranchised, confused. According to the researchers, this range of specific terms implicates relatively few fundamental concepts, which they organize under two general headings: adolescence as a search for identity and adolescents as “smart”. Under the first heading they put adolescence as “change” and adolescents as “pressured” and “egocentric”:

One of the more common themes to emerge in response to questions about what adolescents are like concerned the pressures inherent in adolescent development and the adolescent search for identity. Interviewees talked about teenagers as constantly changing, constantly questioning and searching for information, and constantly beset with confusion and conflict ... (p. 31)

According to the study, the interviewees emphasized the conceptualization of adolescence as a period of continual change, during which kids try to figure out who they are and explore different approaches to life. Ed Zwick, producer of My So-Called Life, characterizes adolescence as “dynamic”: “Each word I think of to describe a teenager is a process. There is something “vibrational” about them. They take a huge step forward followed by an almost equal regression in something else. ... It is a very dynamic time.”[7] Rick Ross, President for Entertainment at Disney Channel, characterizes adolescents as “curious, scared, conflicted, hungry [for information]”[8]. The interviewees’ comments about adolescents’ search for identity often intermingle with characterizations of adolescents as confused or stressed, feeling judged and continually testing whether or not they are “O.K.”.

Another common theme is the description of adolescents as “egocentric”. At least some of the pressures teenagers experience are presumed to derive from their sense that all eyes are on them. “Today’s teens are passionate. They feel things deeply. But they have a kind of tunnel vision - and always have had. They think everything inside them has outside importance.”[9] This echoes the notion of ‘regression to egocentrism’ that has been expressed by several developmental psychologists (e.g. Brown 1965, Flavell, Miller & Miller 1993). The researchers suggest that such a view of the world of adolescence is recapitulated in the angst that has characterized television portrayals of teenagers .

The second major common aspect in the interviews with television creators and executives conducted for the Mediascope study implicates some sort of reference to young people’s intelligence or sophistication. These references imply that adolescents manifest different forms of “smartness” – “smart“ as knowledgeable as well as “smart” as hip. “Smart” as hip refers to a smartness that is closely tied to appreciating and “getting” pop culture. “I think that they’re so much more culturally literate - they can be much more selective about the kinds of things they choose to absorb. And they are little TV critics,” (p. 38) says Jeff Greenstein (co-producer of Will & Grace and Friends). According to the researchers, the panel’s viewpoint on the impact of new communication technologies on adolescents (threat/opportunity) was ambivalent in a similar way as its viewpoint on the very nature of today’s young people - smart in some ways, in others not; confused in some ways, in some ways very clear and solid - which is mirrored in the nature of the programs produced. Writer-producer Jeff Melvoin observes that

[t]oday’s teenagers are very sophisticated - but it’s an appearance of sophistication more than true wisdom. They’re exposed to a lot more. They’re harder to impress and they feel more entitled. On the plus side, they’re more critical and inquisitive. [On the negative side] there’s a glut of stimuli - much more information. ... Nevertheless, there’s still a sweetness and innocence about teenagers. But with television and the Internet, they see a lot more.[10]

3. Contemporary American Teen TV

The term “teenager” and the awareness of the teenage years as a distinct phase of life, and television have emerged somewhat concurrently in American popular consciousness during the late 1930s and have a “lengthy, albeit uneven, relationship, especially with regard to representation”[11]. According to Kearney’s article on Teenagers and Television in the Museum of Broadcast Communications’ Encyclopedia of Television, the two periods with the most attention to teenagers from the American television industry are approximately 1946-66 and 1980-2000, which were both marked by experimentation with programming strategies. Although I will deal with some historically important points of the first period, because of their relevance to the cross-generational appeal of contemporary teen TV, this work deals mostly with the later half of the second period and will also include very recent developments.

3.1. Definition and Short History

There are several definitions of “teen show”, the most popular being ‘TV series featuring teenage characters as main protagonists’ and ‘TV series watched by teens’, both of which are often conflated with each other. I will mostly use the term as explained in the first definition and use a take on the second one that implies ‘TV series who’s viewers are stereotyped as teens’ and a related third meaning for “teen show”, which is rarely addressed - ‘programs that construct viewers as teens’ (youthful sensibility) (Kearney 2002, n.p.).

Though many of the suburban family sitcoms of the 1950s and 60s featured teenage characters (e.g. Leave it to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show), the introduction of several school comedies during the 1950s was more significant to the development of teen programming, setting the stage for later teen oriented series, by depicting teenagers in non-domestic contexts and thus calling attention to “the different social activities, spaces, and relationships that separated teens from adults and produced a distinct teen culture”[12]. The Many Loves of Dobie Gills (CBS 1952-56) is seen as being the first prime-time series consistently placing the emphasis on teenage characters, activities, and spaces over those associated with family shows. Because of its success with young female viewers a number of girl-oriented sitcoms followed (e.g. The Patty Duke Show and Gidget) which, together with the aforementioned Dobie Gills, solidified many of the conventions associated with teen TV programming: 1) the foregrounding of teen characters, 2) the privileging of teen spaces, like school, over family homes and 3) the focus on various stereotypical coming-of-age issues like dating, earning/spending money and dealing with intergenerational conflict (Kearney 2004).

According to Kearney (2002, n.p.), the large amount of teen TV programming during the first two decades of television is related to some extend to the development of the TV network ABC, often seen as the “new kid on the block” in the postwar era, struggling far behind CBS and NBC and trying to exploit its reputation as the youth-oriented network through shows appealing to young families.


[1] Kasschau (1980): 111.

[2] Hine (1999): 25.

[3] Arnett, as quoted in the press release to TIME’s January 2005 cover story “Meet the Twixters”” by Lev


[4] Morrison, as quoted in Jayson

[5] Encyclopedia of Television (2004): 2281.

[6] as quoted in Davis/Dickinson (2004): 11.

[7] “Prime Time Teens” (2004): 32.

[8] “Prime Time Teens” (2004): 32.

[9] “Prime Time Teens” (2004): 33.

[10] “Prime Time Teens” (2004): 37.

[11] Encyclopaedia of Television (2004): 2276.

[12] Encyclopaedia of Television (2004): 2277.

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Representations of adolescence in contemporary American Teen TV and its online fandom
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