Editorial: The trouble with teens

It's certainly a challenging time to be in the children's television business....
September 1, 1997

It’s certainly a challenging time to be in the children’s television business.

Just when the level of competition seems to reach its peak, the bar gets raised a little higher. That’s the sense one gets from reading through our fall TV coverage in this edition of KidScreen. Building critical massÑwith a broadcaster, producer, marketer and retailer all working together as a teamÑhas become a competitive necessity.

‘It’s not just television,’ observes Ellen Levy-Sarnoff, UPN Kids vice president of children’s programming in a story on fall TV and promotions. ‘We’re dealing with PlayStations and Nintendo, CDs and the Internet. It’s more than just other cartoons and the cable universe. There are just so many ways kids can entertain themselves today.

‘All the incentives that we can possibly bring to the table to get kids to sample the product and return for additional sampling are very necessary right now.’

In the midst of all that is the Federal Communications Commission’s order that broadcasters air three hours of educational programming each week, which goes into effect this fall. The most obvious consequence of the ruling will be some new programming and a lot jockeying back and forth between broadcasters and Washington over what qualifies as educational. The more subtle, and perhaps more injurious effect, might be the atmosphere of self-censorship that these measures leave behind.

A chill was felt recently. According to our West Coast editor, it happened at a press conference in Los Angeles to announce the fall lineup for the WB Network. After introducing the new series Dawson’s Creek, a Columbia TriStar coming-of-age drama originally scheduled for an 8 p.m. time slot, network executives suddenly found themselves with a lot of explaining to do. Dawson’s Creek is a young adult series revolving around the lives of two best friends who experience their teen years. The content is somewhat steamier than most other shows in this genre, and by all accounts from those who have previewed it, the show is going to be a hit.

During the press conference, when asked whether this show is meant, because of the 8 p.m. time slot, to attract kids, the producer responded that yes, the intent is to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. The resulting press coverage portrayed the producer and broadcaster as making sex shows for teens. Within a week, Dawson’s Creek had been moved to a 9 p.m. time slot.

The incident illustrates dramatically the polar forces that pull at those who program to the teen market. On the one hand, they must satisfy the expectations of adults and, given the current climate, be extra-sensitive to what parents feel is acceptable kids programming. On the other hand, it’s often precisely the parental unacceptability that makes it appealing to teens. Kids like grown-up subjects. They are drawn to topics that are off-limits, edgy and sometimes dangerous. That’s what makes the subject matter, and the programs that dare to address it, cool.

If you’re trying to reach teens, you’ve got to be cool more than anything else. Even parents know that.

It sure makes it tough on a network to attract teens if it is forced, in effect, to program to adults.

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