Terrible Tween Television

On the deck of a luxurious cruise liner, a party scene is being played out: Regal ice sculptures line the tables, caviar is served and the sounds of a string quartet fill the air. The scene is part of the tale of a missing jewel and a forbidden romance between an upper-class girl and a lower-class boy.

What sounds like a description of “Titanic” is actually an episode of Disney Channel’s “The Suite Life on Deck,” a spin-off to the network’s successful comedy “The Suite Life of Zach & Cody.” The show, which premiered in 2005, centers on twin teenage boys who live in a five-star hotel and then, in the spin-off, on a cruise ship. Both shows are considered the “typical” Disney Channel shows of today, though neither represent a time of television that today’s college students remember from their childhoods.

The Disney Channel began its broadcast in 1983 with “The Mickey Mouse Club.” Their shows ranged from the puppet series “Welcome to Pooh Corner” to the musically oriented sitcom “Kids Incorporated” to the revamped 1989 “The All New Mickey Mouse Club.” It wasn’t just Disney Channel that provided our entertainment as kids: ABC aired TGIF nights and One Saturday Mornings and Nickelodeon had “Rugrats” and “All That.”

At the beginning of the 21st century, the Disney Channel introduced shows like “Lizzie McGuire” and “Even Stevens.” The move signaled a change in children’s television from family-oriented programming to shows dealing with “real” teens (and pre-teens) and their “real” problems; yet, for all the mischief and mix-ups Lizzie, Miranda and Gordo found themselves in, they always learned something in the end.

But we should have known something was up when the Rugrats aged nine years in their 2003 spin-off series, “All Grown Up.” Suddenly, the television shows we watched in our childhood rapidly grew up with us. By the end of the 90s, television shifted into a new era: The Era of the Tweens.

In recent years, Disney Channel shows have become more concerned with making commodities out of their young stars. It’s impossible to walk through Target without seeing Hannah Montana notebooks and “High School Musical” lunchboxes. For the total price of $63.17 (not including tax) you can stare at the Jonas Brothers every night before bed with a comforter, pillow and bedspread.

The consistent attempt to appeal to a tween-dominated audience even prompted Dora the Explorer, a children’s show icon, to follow in the Rugrats’ footsteps. Last March, Dora aged a few years and got a makeover. Now she looks more like a Bratz doll than the adventurous little kid we’ve all come to recognize. Nickelodeon and Mattel partnered together to create this new image as a marketing tool to sell dolls and clothes.

In TV land, the shows have continued to change. ABC Family, which originally began in 1972 as the Christian Broadcasting Network, was known as the Fox Family Channel in the late 90s and featured shows such as “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” to cartoons to Mary-Kate and Ashley sitcoms. Today, nine years after the channel became ABC Family, the shows are a little more risqué. Shows like “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” and “Greek” are less family-oriented and more TV-14. Sex appears to be the new theme on primetime programming.

The exposure that young stars receive nowadays due to the rise of Internet gossip blogs and the persistent paparazzi has only added fuel to the fire. 12 years ago, we could only hope for glimpses at the secret lives of our favorite teen idols.

Nowadays, a plethora of Web sites are dying to tell you who’s dating who and more. More people recognize Lindsay Lohan for her recent scandalous behavior than her roles in “The Parent Trap” or “Life-Size.” The Olsen twins are no longer those cute twin girls who solve mysteries and go on other adventures that can be watched on VHS.

The definition of “children’s shows” has changed and is targeting a new audience now. Networks are selling something that tweens (and their parents) are buying into, and it’s working. Whether that’s a change for the better or worse, the truth is that college students and adults aren’t supposed to be drawn to this new era of programming.

As for me, I’ll stick to my nostalgic memories of childhood. In fact, ABC just started re-showing the original Power Rangers series with hopes of drawing in new viewers, as well as appealing to its old fan base, so you’ll know where to find me on Saturday afternoons.