“Degrassi,” the high-school drama that’s been on TV in various formats for 35 years, is heading to Netflix in 2016 — a move that syncs with teens’ shift in viewing habits toward Internet video and also has given producers more latitude in exploring controversial subjects.
The next incarnation of the show, “Degrassi: Next Class,” will cover issues affecting a new generation, including a focus on social-media hazards like sexting and cyber-bullying.
Netflix ordered 20 episodes of “Degrassi: Next Class,” and plans to debut the first 10 as season one in early 2016 in all territories it offers the service. The streamer’s deal for the show came after Nickelodeon declined to pick it up, after 14 seasons of airing “Degrassi: The Next Generation” (pictured above) on TeenNick and MTV. The final episode of “Next Generation” will air July 31, ending the franchise’s run on cable.
In coming to Netflix’s ad-free streaming service, the show — which from the beginning has aimed to address adolescent problems in a realistic way — has more breathing room to develop storylines, said Stephen Stohn, president of DHX Media’s Epitome Pictures and executive producer of “Degrassi.”
“With ad-supported TV, ratings are at the top of the list and in some cases dictate creative decisions,” Stohn said, adding that when viewership declines there can be a tendency among network executives to shy away from controversial subject matter. “We have more creative freedom with Netflix… With Netflix we’re just encouraged to tell the stories we want to tell.”
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Netflix, famously, does not divulge viewing numbers for individual titles — and doesn’t need TV-size audiences to support an advertising revenue stream.
“Degrassi: The Next Generation” was nominated on Thursday for a Primetime Emmy in the children’s program category, marking its fourth Emmy nom. But on TeenNick, the show has suffered declining TV ratings over the past four years.
After Nick passed on “Next Class,” Stohn said Epitome approached subscription VOD players with the show. “We had a pitch ready that seemed immediately appealing to Netflix,” he said.
Netflix not only provides one-stop-shopping for multiple international territories (requiring Epitome to dub it into 17 languages), but is a natural fit for “Degrassi” as teens watch more video online and less traditional TV, Stohn said. “The younger generation is not watching as much linear television,” he said, and they expect to be able to binge-watch their favorite shows.
Linda Schuyler, executive producer of “Degrassi” at Toronto-based Epitome, said the company had planned the show’s reboot before approaching Nick and other distribution partners about the new concept. “The audience we’re speaking to now, some of them weren’t even born when we started ‘Next Generation’ in 2001,” she said. “That was talking to the millennials. Now we’re talking to this new Generation Z.”
“Degrassi: Next Class” will cover many of the serious, real-life aspects of teen life the show has become known for, ranging from homophobia to racism and substance abuse to violence. In addition, the show’s plotlines will examine how social-media services like Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and others are affecting teenagers.
“If you’re reading about it in the news, it’s on ‘Degrassi,'” said Schuyler, who is married to Stohn. “These kids are trying to figure out dating protocols and safety protocols.”
The new series also is targeting a generation that has grown up knowing terrorism and recession, she said, while at the same time Generation Z is also more hopeful than older demos: “They believe they can make the world better.”
Epitome is in the midst of production on “Next Class,” having finished shooting the eighth episode this week and starting on episode nine Thursday.
Cast members from “Next Generation” returning for “Degrassi: Next Class” include Amanda Arcuri (Lola Pacini); Reiya Downs (Shay Powers); Ana Golja (Zoe Rivas); Nikki Gould (Grace Cardinal); Ricardo Hoyos (Zig Novak); Ehren Kassam (Jonah Haak); Andre Kim (Winston Chu); Lyle Lettau (Tristan Milligan); Spencer Macpherson (Hunter Hollingsworth); Eric Osborne (Miles Hollingsworth III); Olivia Scriven (Maya Matlin); Sara Waisglass (Frankie Hollingsworth); and Richard Walters (Deon “Tiny” Bell).
There’s also a new group of kids joining Degrassi Community School, but Epitome isn’t revealing the characters or actors yet. “We have some amazing young, fresh faces,” Schuyler said. “We’re not afraid to take chances with young talent who have very little experience.”