Fox Drops `American High'

Wednesday, August 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Call ``American High'' the overachiever of reality shows.

In two short weeks, the Fox series that put students at a suburban Chicago high school in the spotlight showed how engaging real-life television could be.

We saw teen-agers fumble through relationships, stumble through dance class and spar with parents, all without a hint of the cheap voyeurism and ersatz drama that pervades ``Big Brother.''

Two weeks, it turns out, was all ``American High'' got. The series was flunked by Fox for low ratings; in its place Wednesday night is a rerun of the animated comedy ``Futurama.''

The loss of ``American High'' brings to mind ``My So-Called Life,'' the acclaimed 1994 drama that died young. When so many banal and exploitive shows about kids thrive, it's juvenile delinquency to dump shows like these.

Bad luck and a shaky network contributed to the show's cancellation. The series debuted shortly after CBS expanded ``Big Brother'' to a sixth night, Wednesday, placing the two reality shows in competition.

With CBS' hit ``Survivor'' as its lead-in, ``Big Brother'' had the clear advantage. And without a strong schedule, Fox couldn't give ``American High'' the time and patience it needed to thrive.

R.J. Cutler, the filmmaker responsible for ``American High,'' said he was disappointed the 13-episode summer run was cut short on Fox but optimistic that the series would resurface elsewhere.

``It's just been a day (since the cancellation) but there are all sorts of conversations going on,'' Cutler said Monday. ``We're very confident we'll find a very healthy home and that it can become a franchise for a network or cable outlet that is in a position to give it a chance to build its audience.''

``My surprise is going to be if we're not in production for a second season very, very soon,'' said Cutler, an Oscar nominee for the Clinton campaign documentary ``The War Room.''

If Internet traffic is any indication of fan support, then ``American High'' has its share: A Fox Web site for the series quickly sprouted ``save our show'' messages.

But could Cutler be misjudging TV viewers? Maybe his cinema verite series about students at Highland Park High School wasn't the right kind of reality.

Although ``American High'' was designed to be entertainment and not a dry sociological study, Cutler refused to pander to the audience — or betray his subjects — by exploiting areas that presumably could have boosted ratings.

Cheap sex was not on the agenda.

``You can't ask me to do this kind of work and encourage me to go for the emotional power our shows go for and then say, `Please, treat these kids like they're objects of our most base voyeuristic desires,''' Cutler said. ``That's not what this is.''

It's disheartening to speculate that the show's refusal to sink to the lowest common denominator contributed to its loss.

Maybe that wasn't it; maybe it was just the fault of a weak network. Wouldn't teen-agers be eager to tune in and measure their experience against others? Why would parents miss a chance to peek into the secret world of adolescence?

Answers to those questions are especially vital to Arnold Shapiro, producer of the groundbreaking ``Scared Straight'' and other worthy shows about American youth.

His current project is UPN's ``The Teen Files,'' an Emmy-winning series that has tackled drinking, drug abuse and bigotry. The next segment, ``Surviving High School'' on Sept. 19, explores harassment and other afflictions of contemporary life with students from Northern California's Yuba City High School.

The series aired on UPN mostly through the good graces of Tony Cassara, the former head of Paramount's TV station group. He is the rare television executive who ``believes in giving back to the community,'' Shapiro said.

More typical are the executives governed strictly by the numbers.

``If you're a network head, you wouldn't say I'm going to keep doing `American Highs' because that's what should be on television. You're going to keep doing more `Survivors' because that's what makes you No. 1,'' Shapiro said.

The failure of ``American High'' to find an audience on Fox has hurt Shapiro's efforts to sell a teen-oriented reality series that would bring students from different backgrounds together.

Giving customers what they want is good business. But Shapiro wonders about the lessons we're learning about ourselves and teaching our children.

``The public is flocking to a series which has everything to do with competition, conflict, greed and financial gain. That's what `Survivor,' the No. 1 show, has to do with every week,'' he said.


On the Net:


Elsewhere in television ....

KNOCKOUT SHOW: The 1971 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier at New York's Madison Square Garden is explored in the context of its tumultuous time in ``Ali-Frazier I: One Nation ... Divisible,'' an HBO documentary premiering 10 p.m. EDT Thursday. Frazier represented the status quo; Ali was ``a whole revolution,'' as one writer puts it in the film from executive producer Ross Greenburg.

Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber``at``