The trouble with teens

U.K. teen channel programmer Lisa Opie shares tips on creating a channel that teens will watch...
October 1, 1998

U.K. teen channel programmer Lisa Opie shares tips on creating a channel that teens will watch

Teenagers, one of the most elusive audiences of them all . . . fickle, paradoxical and diverse. The generation who have sex with their boyfriends, but sleep with their teddies . . . are more likely to have experimented with drugs than any generation before them, but are also more concerned with pensions than their parents were.

‘I worry about not getting on in my exams and not getting on in life.’

And the paradox doesn’t just apply to the individual, but to the demographic as a whole. They’re as likely to be into ponies as pot, sleepovers as raves. There are 13-year-olds who have the maturity of people who are middle aged, and 17-year-olds who have the maturity of children.

But despite the diversity, there are universal truths that unite them; much of what they do, they do for the very first time, they’re desperately keen to assert themselves as individuals, but scared of standing out from the crowd, their hormones rage and they stand on the verge of autonomy with a mixture of fear and relish.

‘You have the freedom to break free, but you’re still young enough to have security.’

When it comes to television, they’re impressively literate and have extremely high standards. They happily tune in to adult fare, with BBC1′s Animal Hospital and home-decorating program Changing Rooms ranking in their top 10, and they noisily reject ‘children’s’ programming. But our research indicated that they were not satisfied . . . they felt underserved.

‘We’re a whole section of British culture that doesn’t get heard.’

Sure, they tuned in to adult programs and they’d opt into the terrestrial ‘youth’ fare that was squirreled away into unseen corners of the schedule, but there was nowhere that was meant just for them. And this despite the fact that the youth market is worth £1.5 billion (US$2.46 billion) in the U.K. and that 60% of teenagers have a TV in their bedrooms, according to the annual survey SMRC Childwise. There was a gap in the market, and we decided to fill it.

Trouble was born in February 1997 with an appealing blend of programming-from Heartbreak High (Gannon Television) to Saved by the Bell (Peter Engel Productions) to home-produced programming, such as What a Life, an outstanding documentary about the lives of extraordinary teenagers-and some innovative and exciting branding that embodied current youth culture. We defined our audience as 10- to 20-year-olds, with a median age of 16, and we determined to provide a general entertainment channel for teenagers that reflected the diversity of their taste.

Sixty-seven percent of our target audience claimed that they couldn’t live without music (according to Target Group Index Youth’97), so we knew we’d have to have a strong music bias. We recognized that while they may be going through the challenges of teen angst, they didn’t want it rammed down their throats. We had some top-rate programming, so success was assured . . . wasn’t it?

Well almost; we learned some crucial lessons along the way. For example, anything ‘worthy’ was best tackled in short form-no more than four minutes. Seventy-seven percent of them may profess to be concerned about the environment (according to Target Group Index Youth’97), but they’d much rather be chilling out to fun and fluff than worrying about it when they get in from school. What’s more, when they claimed to want to watch British teenagers on the airwaves, they were just kidding. Not only did they switch over, but in qualitative research, they were scathing about their peer group’s efforts at presenting.

After just three months on air, Trouble became the number one channel in terms of awareness with 13- to 17-year-old girls, who declared it their favorite youth channel, according to market research by Simon Priest Associates. Six months from launch, Trouble had become the fourth most popular channel with 10- to 15-year-olds after BBC1, ITV and Nickelodeon (in cable and satellite homes; transmission from noon to 8 p.m.). Since Trouble extended its hours (from eight to 13 hours a day) in April 1998, the channel has continued to make inroads into its core audiences. When comparing August to April 1998, ratings for 10- to 15-year-olds have risen by 54% and for 16- to 24-year-olds by 86%. Trouble has had the highest increases among these audiences across all competition including the terrestrials in multichannel homes, according to the Broadcasters Audience Research Board.

So here are my top tips for success in the teen TV market:

* Never claim to be cool, even if you are . . . you won’t be as soon as you’ve said it.

* Go for both sides of the paradox; appeal to the adult and the child at the same time . . . get your fluff and your grit in the right balance.

* They are as diverse as an adult audience; don’t try to define them.

* Know who you are and don’t imitate anyone else.

* Be honest.

* Be prepared to take risks.

* Lead from the front, but don’t shout about it.

* And finally, teenagers have an unerring ability to spot bullshit from a mile off. Try to be trendy, and you’ll look as incongruous as a vicar at a disco.

If you adhere to all of the above, then you may just be able to get them tuned in . . . but don’t stay still for a second. Unlike gardening programs, there’s no such thing as a format for life.

Lisa Opie is head of programming and presentation at London-based teen channel Trouble.

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