ABC Family faces an uphill battle in the tween market

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Friday, May 23, 2003 by MELANIE MCFARLAND

ABC FAMILY--Check Cable ListingsCall it the "Lizzie McGuire" effect. The Disney Channel's dream tween has so many fans that other cable channels are shoring up their programming.

Not that Lizzie cares, since "The Lizzie McGuire Movie" signaled the end of her series' production -- although there are five new episodes in the can. But Hillary Duff's exit means all those 8- to 14-year-old fans are available for the taking. That's part of the reason The N, Noggin's evening programming block, and ABC Family are premiering new shows this weekend.

Technically, since ABC Family is under the Disney corporate umbrella, it's not so much making a run as trying to share.

Smart, since the tween crowd can be hard to pin down. Many TV outlets are pining for their attention these days, eager to tap into the demographic's estimated $10 billion worth of spending power.

Making a tween- or teen-targeted series into a phenomenon can be tough. That's why, like most of television, a lot of the new programs are based on hits that have gone before. Discovery Channel, for instance, created children's versions of its most popular adult shows, such as "Junkyard Wars" and the recently premiered "Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls," for the Discovery Kids digital cable tier and NBC's Saturday morning block.

SWITCHED: Mondays @ 4:30pmJust as "Lizzie McGuire" resembles Nickelodeon's long-gone "Clarissa Explains It All," ABC Family's new show "Switched!," starting at 4:30pm Monday, bears a pale resemblance to The N's "A Walk in Your Shoes."

But "Switched!" isn't nearly as daring. ABC Family's show takes two teens from different parts of the U.S. and has them switch lives for a few days. The first episode has a small-town Pennsylvania girl trade up with a similar-looking young woman from Portland, Ore.

Big deal. Compare that to a recent episode of "A Walk in Your Shoes" that challenged a 16-year-old from North Carolina to trade places with a teenager living in Amman, Jordan. No contest.

Another ABC Family premiere, "The Brendan Leonard Show," bows Monday at 5:30pm. It elevates the host's cable access program to national exposure, much in the way E! made Michael Essany the star of a reality showBRENDAN LEONARD: Mondays @ 5:30pm about his cable access show.

"Brendan Leonard" looks like most other basement cable access shows -- which is to say, it's not very good -- although one reminiscent of "Jackass."

One of the reasons ABC Family's tween courtship is going to be a struggle -- on top of its ongoing battle for attention in the first place -- is because Disney, MTV and Nickelodeon already successfully cater to that demographic. Noggin is Nick's smaller sibling and, as a result, it airs many of the classic tween series that already enjoyed success on Nick and MTV, in addition to the popular "Degrassi: The Next Generation."

The N also is growing its lineup, starting this evening at 8 p.m. with two hours of "Out There," a fish-out-of-water series that tosses a Connecticut boy into Australian culture when his father is busted for money laundering. The hourlong "Out There" will then air Friday nights at 9.

And right after ABC Family's new shows premiere Monday evening, flip over to The N for the premiere of the weeknight show "GirlStuff/BoyStuff" at 6 p.m., described as an animated "Friends" for tweens. Against this stuff, ABC Family's drive into the teen/tween realm looks mighty lame.

But with nearly 20 million viewers and so much disposable income to vie for, it's safe to say that even if its first attempts flop, ABC Family won't be deterred.

Encourage your preteens to avert their eyes, though.