Frog falls back after Dawson

Superman and friends aging, younger shows needed

HOLLYWOOD The net that has most effectively tapped into the zitgeist of teens in recent years is experiencing some puberty pains of its own at the midway point of the season.

The WB, coming off a very successful year, has taken a step backward in the 2003-04 season, down nearly 20% in adults 18-34, according to Nielsen, and bereft of the buzz and momentum it was riding as recently as last May.

In a nutshell, the net lost its No. 2 show from last season (the underrated “Dawson’s Creek”) and has been unable to fill that hole. The high-profile “Tarzan,” starring a former Calvin Klein underwear model, was certainly not the answer, as its quick demise is one of the season’s biggest flop-jobs.

At the same time, key dramas like “7th Heaven,” “Smallville” and “Gilmore Girls” have all seen their ratings tumble vs. last year.

Net continues to gripe about the methodological changes incorporated by ratings company Nielsen, which are at least partly to blame for the mysterious declines among adults 18-34 this season across the board. But it’s also clear that there’s something else awry at the Frog.

At least some of the ratings falloff can be attributed to the nature of its shows and the fickle young 12-24 aud that drives them: Storylines on these dramas, often revolving around high school-age kids, can change dramatically from one season to the next and — in the case of “Gilmore Girls,” where young Rory went off to Yale — not in a way that viewers embrace.

On three key shows, popular young male stars from last season have departed. It’s not easy to replace favorites like David Gallagher (“7th Heaven”), Milo Ventimiglia (“Gilmore Girls”) and Mike Erwin (“Everwood”).

Here’s a look at the net:

WHAT’S WORKING: The move of “Smallville” to Wednesday hasn’t produced the desired results, but the young Superman skein remains the net’s highest-rated series (2.4 rating in 18-49) despite a 33% year-to-year tumble.

TV’s most underrated comedy, “Reba,” continues to plug along despite now facing another family comedy with similar audience crossover. (Did y’all notice that “Reba’s” highest rating this season came with a repeat on the lone Friday that “Lopez” didn’t air?)

Then there are minor successes like rookie “One Tree Hill,” which has built a loyal female teen base and at least feels like a Frog drama, and the Thursday tandem of “Steve Harvey’s Big Time” and “All About the Andersons.”

And although it’s hardly a show to be proud of, “Surreal Life” is drawing solid ratings on Sundays at 9, an hour the net should consider as a permanent reality slot.

WHAT’S TANKING: Most disappointing was “Tarzan,” an ill-conceived take on the classic tale set in New York. The Frog, with popular shows set in Colorado, Kansas and North Carolina, just doesn’t do gothic Gotham well. Remember “Birds of Prey?”

Net also can’t settle for banal comedies that lack originality or wit (think “Run of the House” or “What I Like About You”), so it’s refreshing to hear that it’s rethinking its comedy strategy and looking for higher-concept ideas.

WHAT’S AHEAD: Domestic comedy “The Help” gets a shot on Fridays, and reality hour “High School Reunion” returns on Sunday. Although “Reunion” and “Surreal” are solid, it seems like the net should be able to tap into some bigger franchise concept (a la UPN’s “Top Model”) that would satisfy its audience.

On the drama side, the WB must continue to seek out the proper balance of family and fantasy hours although it must take chances and aim younger — even “7th Heaven” and “Everwood” don’t feature enough these days for 12-24ers.

And looking to next season, net shouldn’t be afraid to rip up its lineup and find better slots and more compatible skedmates for its key shows.

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