Brenda Hampton has been here before.
Critics don't have a lot of affection for her new ABC Family drama "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," but viewers do. After five airings "American Teenager" has busted ABC Family ratings records and generated a strong Internet following with the demo that matters most to the cabler.
"Who knew teens would watch a show about sex?" Hampton quips. "I just had a feeling..."
"American Teenager" revolves around a 15-year-old girl, Amy, "a nice girl" at Ulysses S. Grant High School, a shy French horn player in the marching band, who winds up pregnant after an encounter with the school stud at band camp.
"I didn't exactly realize what what happening until, like, after 2 seconds and then it was just over. And it wasn't fun," a shaken Amy explains to her friends in the pilot seg.
As she did for 11 seasons on "7th Heaven," Hampton's aim is to tell reasonably real-world family stories, leavened with humor, and as much of an authentic voice as she and her staff can muster for the teenage characters. There are a whole bunch of them in "American Teenager," from the band geeks to the reverent Christians taking chastity vows to the geeky-geeks to the naughty girls to the B.M.O.C.s
"American Teenager" has been gestating for years. It was first set up at Fox, when Hampton's pal Susanne Daniels, former WB programming prexy, was a 20th Century Fox TV-based producer and the two of them decided to answer the network's call for a "new '90210.'" (Hmmm, sound familiar?)
"A few nights later I had this idea of a girl in a band uniform holding up a pregnancy test," Hampton recalls. "It kind of all came from that image."
The project never gelled at Fox ("they decided the girl should not be pregnant"), so Hampton relocated it to Lifetime (where Daniels wound up as head of programming), but it didn't come together there either.
By the time the curtain fell on "7th Heaven" last year, Hampton pulled the "American Teen" script out one more time and decided that "this time I was going to write it like I wanted to write it."
(Pictured above, from left, Brenda Hampton, script supervisor Gail Bradley and director Keith Truesdell.)
Ever prolific, Hampton not only wrote a pilot, she wrote another five episodes. She shopped those scripts as specs to more networks that she cares to remember, with no bites.
ABC Family wasn't on her radar until she read an article about the cabler's college drama "Greek" that noted how the channel had broadened its definition of "family" and was looking to attract a young adult demo.
And then Hampton noticed how many WB-vintage reruns are running on ABC Family, including her own "7th Heaven." She had a hunch ABC Family prexy Paul Lee and his team would respond to her vision for "American Teenager," and she was right.
"They got it. They liked it, and we were in business," Hampton says.
ABC Family gave Hampton an initial 10-seg order, and then picked up 13 more after the first few airings set new ratings benchmarks for an ABC Family series telecast and even made the channel No. 1 among all basic cablers in the Tuesday 8 p.m. time slot. "American Teenager" has averaged 3.1 million viewers since its July 1 debut. In its fifth outing last week, it shot up to 3.6 million viewers, of majority are in ABC Family's sweet spot: 2.4 million in the 12-34 demo and 1.2 million in adults 18-34.
The production process has been a dream for Hampton (pictured right with "American Teenager" star Shailene Woodley). There aren't many cooks in her kitchen, given that ABC Family serves as both her network and studio. The show is shot, serendipitously, on the Warner Bros. Ranch lot, the former home of the WB Network offices and more important, only a few blocks away from Hampton's home in Toluca Lake.
She's recruited a number of her "7th Heaven" crew members, so there's already a kind of working shorthand among them that allows for maximum efficiency, Hampton notes.
"It feels like family," Hampton says. "It's been such a smooth start up. We really hit the ground running, and we're all enjoying working together again."
Beyond that, Hampton is overjoyed with their success in landing a mix of talented fresh faces -- star Shailene Woodley and supporting players Kenny Baumann, Megan Park and Daren Kagasoff -- and established names in Molly Ringwald, John Schneider and Josie Bissett. Now that they've had some time to get to know one another, Hampton is enjoying the evolutionary process of tailoring the characters to suit each actor's strengths.
In settling in with a series that feels like it's going to go distance, Hampton has found herself thinking now and again about her old "7th Heaven" boss, Aaron Spelling. Former "90210" thesp Jason Priestley recently directed a seg of "American Teenager," and he and Hampton had fun swapping Spelling stories.
"He would have loved the fact that the critics didn't like us but then we (open) to a really big number," she says. "I told Paul (Lee) that I feel like I only have one more 11-year show in me, and I hope this is it."