ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” easily the hottest rookie series on TV this summer, might have scored even more viewers if the network had kept the original title: “Sex Life of the American Teenager.”
That’s the tongue-in-cheek comment of Brenda Hampton, the creator and executive producer of “Secret Life,” who says the biggest problem with “Sex Life” in the title is that “when you Googled it, you’d call up a bunch of porno sites.” ABC Family’s parent, Walt Disney Co., would definitely not have approved.
But even without the exploitative title — and despite a lukewarm critical reception — “Secret Life” has generated the most eye-popping Nielsen numbers in ABC Family’s history. After premiering with 2.8 million viewers July 1, the series has built its audience week after week, hitting 4.1 million Aug. 5. In recent weeks, it has ruled as cable’s top Tuesday series, and recently it became the summer’s top scripted program on television — broadcast or cable — among the 12-34 crowd.
ABC Family itself is on a roll, growing by double-digit percentages each of the past two quarters on the back of scripted successes like “Greek” and “Kyle XY.” And in July, bolstered by “The Secret Life,” it averaged 1.35 million primetime viewers, ranking 10th among all ad-supported cable networks.
The network quickly renewed “Secret Life” for a second season of 13 hourlong episodes, set to begin in January, and Madison Avenue is starting to pay attention, says Laura Nathanson, executive VP of ad sales for the network.
“Secret Life” is an ABC Family inhouse production and not from the sibling ABC Studios, at least in part because of the low $1.5 million-an-episode budget (at least $1 million below the average for a broadcast network primetime series).
The odyssey “Secret Life” took to reach its destination at ABC Family is as complicated as some of the plotlines of the series. It started more than a decade ago at Fox when Susanne Daniels was head of programming. Fox eventually passed on the show, and a few years ago, the project followed Daniels to Lifetime.
With no luck there, a frustrated Hampton wrote six scripts on spec and submitted them to other networks, including the CW, which had carried her longrunning hit “7th Heaven.” She zeroed in on ABC Family because it was playing off the reruns of “Heaven” and was scouring the community for original scripted hours as part of a new programming initiative.
ABC Family took the leap even though it knew the path to success was strewn with minefields. Because the main character in “Secret Life” is an unwed pregnant 15-year-old, Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive VP of the media buyer Starcom, says lots of advertisers held back from buying time in the show, taking what she calls “a wait-and-see attitude.”
But worry over controversial themes usually evaporates when a show starts piling up huge ratings.
“Nielsen numbers will do the talking in the advertising community, which has a deep respect for success,” Caraccioli-Davis says.
Apart from the fact that “teenagers are very interested in sex,” as Hampton puts it, why has “Secret Life” made such an impact after only seven episodes?
Kate Juergens, executive VP of original-series programming and development for ABC Family, says, “We’re not sugar-coating teenage pregnancy, but dealing with the very real consequences of it.”
A fan of “7th Heaven” (which ran for 11 seasons on the WB and its CW successor), Bob Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for TV and popular culture at Syracuse U., says, “She has the ability to write a show that appears old-fashioned and earnest, without a lick of irony. But if you listen carefully, the show is filled with dialogue that’s hip and crisp, as if you’re listening to a real cell-phone conversation between two teenagers.”
Hampton takes great pains to try to capture how young people talk. “I like all of our actors, and the younger ones, in particular, have opinions,” she says. “They’ll come to me and tell me if some of their dialogue doesn’t sound right to them.” Hampton listens, and will sometimes let them tinker with their lines, but adds that if she disagrees, the dialogue stays as written.
To the culture mavens who bring up “Juno” and “Knocked Up,” two hit movies about single women grappling with being pregnant, as forerunners of “Secret Life,” Thompson says the similarities are only superficial. The two movies, he continues, “wrapped themselves in the vestments of irony and comedy to sidestep the difficult issue of an unwanted pregnancy.”
But Hampton is not writing a tragedy. She injects light moments into “Secret Life,” because she comes out of the world of sitcoms (most recently, in 2005, as writer and exec producer of “Fat Actress,” starring Kirstie Alley).
Most mainstream critics haven’t embraced the show, indicting it as a TV-series version of an afterschool special, “filled with didactic messages and a lotta wooden acting,” in the words of Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly.
Hampton can live with getting cold-shouldered by reviewers, saying, “I’d rather get good ratings and bad reviews than bad ratings and good reviews.”
She adds that it doesn’t help when ABC Family ends each episode with the same public-service message from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy. The group aims the message at both parents and teens, urging them to communicate with one another about sex.
The PSA makes it look as if Hampton is collaborating with the group on the scripts, which she says is false. “I don’t rely on any outside organization,” she says. “I make this stuff up myself.”
Hampton’s main objection: “The PSA sounds like an apology for the fact that we’re dealing with teenage sex. I don’t think we should apologize for that.”
But, otherwise, Hampton says ABC Family leaves her alone, giving her more freedom than most of the network’s other shows by slapping a TV-14 advisory on the episodes. As she puts it: “I can have a character say the words oral sex, but you won’t hear her say ‘Jesus Christ.’ ”
ABC Family can’t resist taking regular swipes at “Gossip Girl,” the CW series about teenagers that proclaims its hipness in elaborate marketing campaigns. For all the publicity, “Secret Life” regularly harvests more viewers than “Gossip Girl” despite reaching millions fewer homes.
Hampton’s “7th Heaven” was the longest-running hit in the WB/CW’s history, and Larry Novenstern, exec VP of national electronic media for Optimedia Intl., calls “Secret Life” a cross between “7th Heaven” and “Juno.”
No doubt CW would be a lot better off now if it had kept Hampton’s latest teenage soap from migrating to a snarky cable competitor.