‘Hey Matthew, marry me!”
They have gathered on this warm evening along a klieg-lit boardwalk in Universal City, Calif., a good thousand of them, on hand to celebrate the release of the Party of Five soundtrack. They squish up against the barriers and security guards, screaming for Matthew Fox, Scott Wolf, and the rest of the cast (”Neve is Hot!”), desperate for a nod, a photo op, or even a body autograph.
There’s just one hitch: A few yards from the fans’ frantic reach, inside the doors of a Sam Goody, the show’s stars are having trouble rallying their youngest cast member, Andrew Cavarno, 4, who’s joy-rolling around the floor in his Sunday best.
”C’mon,” Fox coaxes gently, but Cavarno pays him no mind. Wolf steps in to assist, scooping up his onscreen baby bro and directing his attention to the restless throngs: ”Hey, Andy, see all those people out there? They want us to go meet them.” Cavarno slips Wolf a grin, then wriggles out of his grasp. ”Andy,” Wolf pleads, as the crowd begins to pound on the store windows, ”we gotta go!”
Forgive Cavarno for underestimating the importance of a crazed fan, or not knowing that 10 million of them have already saved his show’s neck from the noose of cancellation. For though PO5’s Nielsen ratings are very modest (currently ranking 83rd out of TV’s 136 prime-time series in its third season), it owns a rabid audience that its network, Fox, can’t ignore: In the malls, the PO5 stars are clawed at. In the mail room at the show’s studio, Columbia Pictures Television, employees sift through mountains of love letters. On the Internet, PO5 boasts more Web pages than top 20 programs like ER or The Drew Carey Show.
But it’s not just a zealous following. It’s the right kind of zealous following. Inside PO5’s unassuming ratings lies a silver lining: the young, largely female viewership that advertisers crave. It’s the No. 15 show among 18- to 34-year-old viewers, No. 10 among 18- to 34-year-old women, and No. 12 among 12- to 17-year-old female teens. ”If you want young adults, which is the hardest audience to reach, Party of Five should be one of the top shows on your list,” says Western International Media ad buyer Tim Spengler. Adds Whitey Chapin, VP of broadcast research at rival TN Media: ”You could buy ER or Seinfeld to reach more women, but Party of Five offers one of the best vehicles to get a concentrated audience.” Last month, Dr Pepper kicked off a $15 million promotion with the show, the most elaborate ever on Fox, making PO5 one of the network’s largest revenue-generating shows, at $150,000 per 30-second spot.
But what a strange fit it is. A classy drama with three-dimensional characters tackling real-life issues finds a home on a network teeming with the lascivious (Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place, Married…With Children) and the unexplained (The X-Files, Married…With Children). For the uninitiated, PO5 concerns the traumas and tribulations (suicide, alcoholism, infidelity — and that’s just last month) of the five orphaned, San Francisco-based Salinger siblings: Charlie (Fox), a semi-reformed philanderer who’s trying to run a restaurant, be a father, and enjoy his 20s; Bailey (Wolf), a well-intentioned college freshman who’s reaching point break; Julia (Neve Campbell), a sensitive, bookish high school senior with several romantic debacles under her belt; Claudia (Lacey Chabert), a wise-beyond-everyone’s-years eighth-grade violinist who’d rather forgo puberty altogether; and Owen (Cavarno and twin brother Steven), who spends most of his time off camera. Currently, the show is building to a pair of February sweeps episodes (Feb. 19 and 26) guaranteed to boost Kleenex’s first-quarter sales: Bailey’s drinking problem prompts a heated family intervention.