'Teenager' Turns 100
After jump-starting a TV teen pregnancy trend, "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" attracts record ratings for ABC Family, launched Shailene Woodley and hits a big milestone.
In 2005, Brenda Hampton shopped a script centered on a pregnant 15-year-old. "I had this vision of Amy Juergens" -- played by Shailene Woodley -- "holding up a pregnancy test in front of the mirror," she says of the pilot for The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Hampton was met with resistance: Fox didn't want the series' lead to be pregnant; Lifetime wanted to focus on the mothers' storylines.
ABC Family took a risk and bought the show, debuting the controversial series in September 2008 on the heels of new and edgier programming, including Greek and Kyle XY, and signalling a change in direction for the network known more for syndicated family-friendly shows like Full House than boundary-pushing original programming.
Teenager broke the record for highest-rated debut (previously held by Kyle XY) with 2.82 million viewers. It also surprised the network with 300,000 Facebook fans when the show's page launched in April 2009. "We'd never had numbers anywhere near this, and the social media it generated was unprecedented on the channel and probably unprecedented in television," says ABC Family head of programming Kate Juergens, after whom Woodley's character is named. "Because for the first time, a young audience really just started talking back to a show and talking about a show among themselves."
Says Woodley, who co-starred as George Clooney's rebellious daughter in last year's best picture Oscar nominee The Descendants: "I think it's a show that appeals to teenagers that has soap-opera qualities to keep people tuning in, but we also deal with themes that are very honest and truthful. We deal with divorce, teenage motherhood, breakups and best-friend relationships, and they're all things people can relate to."
Barely five seasons later, the series boasts more than 4.5 million Facebook fans and 73,000-plus followers on Twitter, with average ratings of 2.3 million (including significant on-demand and online numbers of 700,000 viewers an episode and a series-high audience of 4.68 million in season two). Along the way, Teenager prompted ABC Family to support buzzworthy shows such as Pretty Little Liars; Bunheads, about a Vegas showgirl-turned-ballet instructor; and Baby Daddy, about a clueless twentysomething with an infant daughter. The series also helped launch a national obsession with teen pregnancy, inspiring at least three reality series -- MTV's Teen Mom and 16 & Pregnant and TLC's I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant -- within a year of its debut.
Network president Michael Riley calls Teenager a "brand-defining show. What we love is that we're getting a tremendous amount of co-viewing," counting parents as well as its core group of teens among its audience, aided by adult actors like Molly Ringwald, who plays Amy's mom.
"In my career," says Ringwald, "I feel like I went from a teenager to a mom of a teenager." As for Woodley: "She is exactly how I hope my own daughter will grow up."
The 20-year-old actress, who earned an Independent Spirit Award for her Descendants work, isn't rushing to leave the nest. "When we started Secret Life, it was just exciting to be on the set," she says. "That's kind of how I still feel, five years later."