Behind every television show is someone who took a chance, believed in their product, and made numerous sacrifices to bring their vision to fruition.
To create a television show is no small feat. Sometimes the conception of the idea is as amazing as the finished product itself.
Born of a desire to reach a challenging audience, the genesis of the show that was to become the “Degrassi” series was not conjured up by a high-powered producer in a plush studio office. Instead, it grew rather organically from an unlikely, yet rather ironically, suitable source.
“I spent eight years teaching junior high school,” says creator and Executive Producer of “Degrassi,” Linda Schuyler. “In those days, you could go to the audio-visual department, get a projector and show things to your class. I got frustrated that there wasn’t enough good stuff to show that age bracket, these emerging young adults. So I went to the school board and complained and asked for more materials. They came back and said that they were nonexistent.”
The problem caused Schuyler to take action by embarking on a drastic career leap. “One day I got tired of hearing myself complain,” admits Schuyler, “So I left teaching to pursuit a career as an independent filmmaker.”
The beginning of her odyssey started simply enough with a small publication that she found. “I thought this little book with animated characters would make a lovely little episode for young people, so I went to a television distributor and they said, ‘we like the story but there are too many shows for young people that are animated.’ Then they quickly said, ‘But we don’t have anything that’s live action.’ That immediately appealed to me and fit with my agenda of wanting to tell stories that had resonance with the tween and teen age bracket. So I developed it as a live action show and I took it to Canadian Broadcasting Company. Fortunately, right at that time they were looking for material that had more authenticity to it. Unbeknownst to any of us, that became the pilot for the ‘Kids of Degrassi Street’ which was the precursor for ‘Degrassi Jr. High’ and ‘Degrassi High’ and all the following incarnations of the show.”
The “Kids of Degrassi Street” premiered in 1979 and ended its run in 1985. It was followed by “Degrassi Jr. High” which ran from 1986 to 1989, with “Degrassi High” on the air from 1989 to 1991. The current form of the show, “Degrassi: The Next Generation” began in 2001 and remains on the air today with over 300 produced episodes.
The “Degrassi” franchise is one of the most successful shows in Canada as well as being a hit in the United States.
Schuyler is quick to add that while the pilot production process may sound like it went rather smoothly, the entire venture into the world of television wasn’t without its complications and leaps of faith.
“At first, they paid me a pittance for the show,” explains Schuyler. “Giving up that regular teaching paycheck was huge. Leaving the security of a job with tenure to go to the tumultuous world of production with no guarantees was quite scary.”
To add further to the drama, “Degrassi” has never been a show to shy away from tough-to-tell tales. Accurately portraying teen life, each episode is full of serious issues facing today’s youth, including addiction, pregnancy and abortion, as well as violence and gender identity.
But Schuyler soon knew that this complicated venture with its heavy subject matter was well worth it when she started receiving feedback about the show. The pride in her voice is clear as she says, “I keep a book in my office, and I call it, ‘Why I Do What I Do.’ It’s filled with emails and letters from parents and kids who have responded to a particular storyline. That fills me with great joy when I see that we’ve really connected with kids on a certain issue.”
Schuyler goes on to reveal, “We have a warehouse that we’ve renovated into a school. And when I walk through the halls of our ‘school’ here I feel so good about what we’re doing. I get so much pleasure from working with young people. It’s just so incredibly rewarding.”
The journey of “Degrassi” started with that little book that Schuyler believed would make a ‘lovely episode’ and continues with her ‘Why I Do What I Do’ book which reminds her not only of the progress that she’s made personally but of the impact her creation has had on several generations of young people as well.
“Sometimes I have to deal with so many daily responsibilities, and I can get overwhelmed with my duties as an entrepreneur,” discloses Schuyler. “But then I look at the pages in that book with those letters and messages and I see the connections that we’ve made with kids who are cutters or who were afraid to come out to their parents about their sexuality. I think to myself, we’ve made connections and you can’t put a dollar value on that. That special book keeps me going.”
The irony that she went from a single classroom to a worldwide one is not lost on Schuyler. “Yes, it has occurred to me that through this show I’m reaching way more kids than I ever thought possible when I became a teacher. I’m proud to say that I get to present and explore really meaningful topics in a way that wouldn’t be possible if I was just an instructor. That means the world to me.”
The world of “Degrassi” keeps going as well, guided by a leader who took a chance, created a meaningful project, and continues to produce incredibly significant content for all of the right reasons.
The newest season of “Degrassi: The Next Generation” premieres Tuesday at 9e on TeenNick