With few exceptions, network television isn't known for its noble experiments.
And, unfortunately, one of those few moments of experimental nobility - "My So-Called Life" - is in serious danger of failing.ABC has stuck with the low-rated series much longer than most observers expected, ordering a total of 19 episodes this season. But the network has announced that the show will leave the schedule after its Jan 19 episode.
While the move was expected, it's still disappointing - although the producers and cast aren't criticizing ABC programmers.
"We love ABC because they love us,' said series star Bess Armstrong in a telephone interview. "(ABC Entertainment President) Ted Harbert and (ABC Network President) Bob Iger and (ABC Entertainment executive vice prsident) Stu Bloomberg in particular . . . are just such huge devotees of the show."
The fact is that almost any other show with ratings as low as "Life's" would have disappeared after but a handful of episodes. But because ABC executives thought this show about a group of teens - and their parents - was of such high quality, they kept it on the air and ordered more episodes.
"We feel so strongly that the low numbers are a function of the time slot," said Armstrong. (The show airs Thursdays at 7 p.m.) "And we're just hoping that the sort of fanatic response from the people who do watch the show, in addition to ABC's love for the show and pride in it . . . will give the show another shot in a better time slot."
While the future appears grim, it isn't over yet for "Life." In announcing the show would go off in January, Harbert said it was still a candidate to return in the fall - presumably in a better time slot.
If "Life" does not return, it will have fallen victim in large part to internal politics at ABC.
"We're a victim of being on a successful network," Armstrong said. Not only is ABC Entertainment limited as to where it can place the show because of the success of other series, but ABC News controls several 9 p.m. time slots during the week.
"When one of the news magazines went down this fall, on any other network we would have been moved into that slot," Armostrong said. "But (ABC News President) Roone (Arledge) got to move another of his news shows into that slot. That's what we're up against.
"That's the sort of thing the public isn't aware of - the sort of inner politicking that determines which shows live and die."
Even though the time slot hasn't worked, Armstrong stands behind the attempt to make it work.
"It was a very courageous attempt," she said. "I so love these guys - Stu and Ted in particular - who really stood up last May in that (programming) meeting and said, `If we don't put a show like this on the air, then what are we in television for?' "
The ABC executives pointed to surveys in which viewers said they wanted programming of substance that they could watch with their kids at 7 o'clock.
"And that's what they did," Armstrong said. "They threw down the gauntlet and said, `You want something challenging? You want something that families can watch together? Well, here it is.'
"Now, clearly, this is not made for kids much under 12 years old. But what they were saying - and this is where I think it's sad that it didn't work - is that parents are always saying that they don't know how to start a conversation with their teenagers. This show is like a set of conversation openers between teenagers and parents. And as such, for the people who've discovered, it's had a really unique and exciting use."
"My So-Called Life" has dealt sensitively and intelligently with issues like sex, drinking, drugs, even life and death.
"This is a more honest look at being an adolescent in the 1990s than anything on TV," Armstrong said without exaggeration.
And while early episodes emphasized the teens, the series quickly fleshed out parents Patty and Graham, played by Armstrong and Tom Irwin - making them perhaps the most realistic parents in TV history.
"They don't always agree. They're different people," Armstrong said. "You know how so often on TV the parents are sort of this amorphous united front? . . . Graham is a Dead Head who sort of takes it all in stride and is a little amused by it. And Patty is like this tightly wrapped over-achiever."
Like real people, the characters aren't always likable.
"The courage in the writing, that I feel honored to carry, is that Patty isn't nice all the time. And I don't know a parent who is," Armstrong said. "But what Patty does she does she does out of genuine love and concern. She just doesn't get it right all the time. . . . She's not perfect. She's very tightly wrapped and leaking."
The overall excellence of the show makes its failure to find an audience all the more frustrating.
"Unfortunately, I don't think it can function at (7)" Armstrong said. "I think there are too many younger kids commanding the dial. There are too many people still putting kids to bed. I know I am.
"It's insane and we're tearing our hair out about it. It was a nice idea. It didn't work. The difficulty is that ABC's schedule is so locked in by relative success that they have nowhere to move us."
What Armstrong and the rest of the "My So-Called Life" family is hoping for is a reprieve. They're looking toward both Golden Glove and Emmy nominations, as well as continued support from fans.
As a matter of fact, there has been a big upsurge in mail in recent weeks.
"We appreciate the continued support. It can only help us," Armstrong said.
Where to write
To let ABC know you want to see more of "My So-Called Life," write to Robert Iger and/or Ted Harbert:
Robert Iger, ABC Network Group president, 77 W. 66th St., New York, N.Y., 10023.
Ted Harbert, ABC Entertainment president, 2040 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
Remember, personal letters are more effective than form letters or petitions.