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TeenScreen Report: Tips on creating a TV show for teens

Teens. It's never been more challenging to reach this influential and elusive audience: not only are teen consumers becoming ever more sophisticated and skeptical, but now, more than ever, programmers must ensure that teen-targeted programs do not offend adult sensibilities....
October 1, 1997

Teens. It’s never been more challenging to reach this influential and elusive audience: not only are teen consumers becoming ever more sophisticated and skeptical, but now, more than ever, programmers must ensure that teen-targeted programs do not offend adult sensibilities.

In the ‘TeenScreen’ special report, we examine recent winners in teen programming and hear directly from those targeting today’s teens — sharing their strategies for successfully connecting with the ‘arbiters of cool.’

* * *

When it comes to television programming for teens, long gone are the days of the simplistic, ideal existence portrayed on The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. Teenagers today are much smarter than they were even a mere generation ago. However, despite the vastly different experiences of teens on the verge of the 21st century, a far cry from the naive 1950s and `60s, some things never change. The teenage mindset continues to be preoccupied with finding oneself, carving a unique niche and declaring a fierce sense of independence. So, in essence, programming for teens requires only some revamping for each generation to reflect current cultural trends.

However, there are some necessary ingredients for a successful TV program that haven’t changed, and these include characters that teenagers can identify with and aspire to be like. They want to see themselves as fitting in with their favorite show’s teen icons, hanging out with these kids and sharing in the fun. Interesting and oftentimes fantasy-like settings appeal to teens, such as the wealthy high school of Beverly Hills, 90210 or the beach of Baywatch. And don’t forget teen-relevant topics, cutting-edge music, up-to-the-minute wardrobe and, of course, comedy.

The most elusive ingredient, however, and the one that makes this demogaphic so difficult to reach, is tapping into what is construed as ‘cool.’ Possibly the worst mistake a development executive can make is presenting characters the way he or she perceives teens to be, rather than how they really are. Teenagers can smell a fraud a mile away, and they don’t want to be hit over the head with a moral message. They want to have fun watching a show, and if the show strikes a relevant chord with them, it may result in a positive influence. It’s therefore essential to work closely with focus groups and bring in writers who are close to the intended audience when developing characters and dialogue that is believable. At Saban, we utilize the teens who star in our shows to provide feedback on dialogue and storyline. Time and time again, they prove that it’s far better to write dialogue that skews a bit above the audience than below its intended mark.

Because teenagers are searching for independence and have such a strong desire to learn on their own, a TV show in which the tone turns ‘preachy’ will evoke parental rule, and is therefore a surefire way to make them tune out. We design teen stories that have universal themes, such as unrequited love, but because males and females have different interests, we try to weave two storylines into each episodeÑa romance-driven storyline along with a comedic/adventure theme that will appeal to both gendersÑwith the end result being a genre that has become known as ‘dramedy.’ As for topics, we go for great storylines addressing the ‘lighter’ issues facing teens today, and leave the heavier issues for prime time.

At Saban, we’ve found that when reaching today’s kids, we have to develop shows that reflect a multi-ethnic environment. We usually offer an array of characters that kids can identify with.’ However, we update the characters by adding elements to mirror the kids who watch the shows. For instance, a character we’ve created for our upcoming series Breaker High would be comparable to Lumpy on Leave it to Beaver. We’ve actually modeled him around John Belushi to make him more contemporary.

All things considered, TV executives who wish to reach their targeted teen audience need to present characters, storylines and settings that ring true to kids living in the late 1990s. Teen viewers need to be presented with plausible situations that they might find themselves confronting while offering solutionsÑwhether by drama or comedyÑto resolve these dilemmas.

Lance Robbins is president, Motion Pictures/Television of Saban Entertainment in Los Angeles, California.

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