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 teensÑsharing their strategies for successfully connecting with the ‘arbiters of cool.’
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Being a teen in the `90s means having been weaned in the post-Watergate era and coming of age during the O.J. trial. Not surprisingly, this generation of teens and tweens has a healthy amount of skepticism about the information presented to themÑskepticism that translates into discriminating tastes in entertainment.
Today’s under-20 crowd knows the difference between a truly entertaining blockbuster and an empty, overhyped waste of pocket money. These kids can discern the difference between a series with a genuine teen point of view and a cast with twentysomethings posing as high schoolers, or worse still, a program more concerned with appeasing their parents than themselves. Teenagers today demand realistic depictions of their generation.
The good news is, movies and series that provide this connection are rewarded with remarkably loyal audiences that will keep coming back for more.
An uncluttered market
‘Teens all believe that they are smart and grown up already,’ says Sabrina, The Teenage Witch executive producer Paula Hart.
‘They’re looking not to be talked down to. Kids are very worldly today and you have to talk to them basically as if they were adults.’
This philosophy is paying off for Hart. Her ABC Friday night series is number one in the teen demographic (and does very well with adults as well), according to an ABC spokesperson. Although its lead is a girl, Hart says half the show’s viewers are boys, many of them huge fans of its strong female character. ‘It proves that a girl can hold a male audience,’ she says.
In the television universe, the once-paltry slate of shows directly targeted to adolescents is suddenly fully stocked this season. Whereas practically the only teen-specific series in recent years were on NBC’s Saturday morning teen block (TNBC), new venues for teen products are springing up in prime time and on cable.
Abby Sheritt, co-producer of Saban’s two teen shows, returning Sweet Valley High and the new Breaker High, both airing on UPN, notes that among other things, programmers are responding to statistics.
‘Teens are going to be the largest segment of the population soon, and more are looking for programming that’s geared toward them,’ says Sheritt.
‘We try to create characters that are charismatic, using certain universal teen stories that everyone goes throughÑthe unrequited crush, finding a best friend. But we try to put a hip, cutting-edge spin on it,’ she says. ‘Teens don’t want to be hit over the head with morality tales.’
Angling for its own slice of TNBC’s pie, USA Network has also launched a teen block this fall, featuring a new original series, USA High, produced by Peter Engel, creator of the TNBC lineup.
‘We were figuring out how to beef up younger viewership. We saw that the kids marketplace is very cluttered and is dominated by some very powerful players,’ says Medora Heilbron, vice president of series development at USA Network. ‘So we became interested in looking at the teen marketplace.’
The network rounds out its teen block with episodes of second-run Saved By the Bell: The New Class. ‘If this is successful, I imagine we’ll be doing development for original teen strips to expand our hour-long block,’ says Heilbron. USA Network is promoting the weekday afternoon block by leading in the first week with teen-oriented movies like Sixteen Candles.
Karen L. Williams, editorial director at Teen Beat magazine, asserts that personality-driven properties are the hot ticket with teens. ‘Home Improvement is the most popular show among our readers, because of the three young male stars. Jonathan Taylor Thomas is their favorite character in the show. They also seem to really like Tim Allen,’ she says.
In general, her teen readership looks for role models that are appealing. ‘If it’s a show about kids, their age is pretty importantÑthat they have someone they can identify with.’
TNBC’s Engel concurs: ‘Television is all about casting and writing.’ Both Engel’s new show City Guys on NBC and USA High have sought star-quality cast members, and in the August issue of Seventeen, four out of seven of the new teen stars hailed from Engel’s new shows. ‘We feel we have [generated] some real heat with our new people,’ says Engel.
Channel One: A search for truth
Far from being a newcomer in the teen broadcast business, Channel One Network has been feeding news and educational programs to high schools and middle schools since 1990. The school-transmitted, advertiser-supported network is best known for its teen-anchored newscasts, which reach more than eight million teenage viewers every day.
‘Teens are interested in things that strike them as true and honest; things that relate to issues that affect their lives; things they find entertaining,’ says Andy Hill, president of programming at Channel One.
Since Channel One’s shows air in the classroom, they don’t have to compete with channel surfing and the Internet. ‘But we need all the same elements as any show to be successful,’ maintains Hill.
Hill points to what he calls ‘a high phony-meter’ in the youth audience as a constant factor in his programming strategy. ‘These young people have been taught to question.’
Channel One producers address this by keeping it real in newscasts. ‘Our reporters are encouraged to be themselves on camera, to be affected by events around them, unlike traditional newscasters,’ Hill says.
A new fact-based teen game show entitled Click, from Merv Griffin Productions, also capitalizes on the accessibility of its young host Ryan Seacrest. In the fast-paced format, Seacrest poses pop culture-oriented questions to teen panelists.
‘He’s very brash,’ admits the show’s executive producer, Ernest Chambers. ‘But nobody is offended by him. Ryan is very cool. Kids are going to like him.’
The show, which fulfills FCC requirements for educational programming, is careful never to be ‘fake or boring,’ the producer adds. Hill says the company, originator of Wheel of Fortune and other top game shows, entered the teen category because it saw the demographic as a viable niche, especially after the FCC mandate.
‘The show’s educational purpose is implicit not pedantic,’ says Chambers, adding that Click’s format incorporates the terminology and visual look of a computer to attract the youth audience.
heartbreak, mayhem, machismo
A spokesperson for MTV, the channel perceived by many as synonymous with teenage entertainment, asserts, ‘teens are not who we’re creating programs for. We target young adults 18 to 24.’ Still, the channel’s MTV Movie Awards are a strong indicator of teens’ cinematic leanings. The annual awards are determined by a national poll of MTV viewers, who this year awarded Best Movie honors to Scream, a film described by industry observers as one that teens watch over and over on video.
The Miramax thriller stars Drew Barrymore and Party of Five’s Neve Campbell, and features a graphic disembowelling in the opening sequence, a testament to the youth audience’s high tolerance for graphic visuals. Other winners for 1996 included Jerry Maguire, William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, The Rock and The Craft.
Roberta Caploe, executive editor at Seventeen magazine, says, ‘I think [teens] totally loved Scream, because more than anything, kids want to see themselves reflected in the media. Scream was exactly that.’
‘Romeo & Juliet was an unbelievable blockbuster with our readers because it had two people in the title roles that they just adore no matter what,’ says Caploe. ‘Both Scream and Romeo & Juliet, to me, [had] a common thread in that [they're both] about kids who feel alienated or outside of the mainstream and I think that is a favorite pull for kids.’
On Channel One Network`s teen Web site (www.channelone.com), visitors to an area called ‘Movies for Boring Summer Days’ were asked to name the best movies they’d seen recently. Scream was a leading choice.
‘Just the title will tell you that it is good,’ remarks one respondent. Not surprisingly, many teens recommended any movie containing their favorite stars or heartthrobs (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Leonardo Di Caprio topped the list).
The big picture
According to Caploe, teens work out larger issues in their lives while munching popcorn at the movies. ‘When they go to the movies and see something that is presenting those sorts of feelings and ideas in a dramatic way, they’re going to completely link to it. I think that teenagers are always looking for stuff to relate to, because it’s such a chaotic time [of life] for them.
‘More than anything else, kids are just trying to find their way in the world,’ observes Caploe. ‘In that way, it’s a scarier world [today] than it used to be.’