The tide is turning for teen TV

Long referred to as neglected, difficult and fickle, the teen market's time has come. This year is seeing an unprecedented number of new teen pilots, new teen series and even proposed new teen channels. Not only that, but the U.S. teen...
April 1, 1999

Long referred to as neglected, difficult and fickle, the teen market’s time has come. This year is seeing an unprecedented number of new teen pilots, new teen series and even proposed new teen channels. Not only that, but the U.S. teen demographic itself is growing, and will continue to grow in both economic clout and sheer size for the next 10 years.

‘I think everybody’s targeting the demo,’ says NBC’s VP of Saturday morning programs and prime-time series, Robin Schwartz. ‘Because the boomers’ kids are hitting their teens right now, what’s happening is that you’re going to see a steady increase. In 2010, it’s going to top out, with the largest population of teenagers in this country’s history.’ Jill Kilcoyne, associate director of syndicated research at Northbrook, Illinois-based Teenage Research Unlimited, has the figures to back that up. She says in 1993, teens ages 12 to 19 numbered 28 million in the U.S. and collectively spent US$89 billion. By 1998, their ranks had swollen to 31 million, with the amount spent up to US$141 billion. Kilcoyne says the size of the teen demo will continue to grow to at least 34 million-a 21% increase over 1995-before it flattens out 11 years from now.

If this year’s drama pilot picks are anything to go by, the major U.S. broadcasters are paying attention. More pilots than ever before involve teen characters and situations. Fox picked up such teen-themed pilots as Time of Your Life, Roswell High, Opposite Sex and Cruel Intentions, the WB grabbed Outreach, Angel, Young Americans, Popular and Brutally Normal, NBC chose Freaks and Geeks and Chaos Theory and ABC picked up Brookfield. Everyone’s noticing that the WB, which skews youngest among the broadcasters, with a core target of ages 18 to 34, has scored double-digit ratings increases this year with the coveted young adult demo, and TNBC, the only teen block on U.S. broadcast TV, has witnessed a 10% growth in ratings in fourth quarter 1998 over 1997, even as NBC saw a 20% decline in prime-time ratings over the same period.

The WB’s executive VP of programming, Jordan Levin, says teens are important to his network as cultural trendsetters and early adopters of cool shows, but stresses that the new pilots are aimed at a larger audience than teens alone. Even though pilots such as Touchstone Television’s Brutally Normal, Touchstone’s Popular (directed by Brian Robbins) and Columbia TriStar’s Young Americans star teen characters in teen settings, he says no U.S. broadcaster can afford to limit itself to only 9% of the population. This is not to say the shows aren’t aimed at teens-the WB certainly hopes to pull in the 24% of its audience that falls in the teen demographic with such shows-it’s just that teen shows are proving popular with general audiences too. Certainly, such shows won’t get the ratings to survive, growing teen demo or not, on a major network unless this is true. As a case in point, Levin notes that Dawson’s Creek, which is usually referred to as a teen show, has twice as many 18- to 49-year-old viewers as teen viewers.

Up in Canada at youth specialty channel YTV, Peter Moss says he is currently considering ‘at least half a dozen’ new shows he hopes will bring in teens. ‘If you want to prepare for an audience bump coming in three years, you have to start now,’ he says. ‘At the moment, we’re very strong at the bottom end [of the teen audience], and we’re beginning to put together a programming block for older teens.’ He says that his quest for teen programming has been facilitated by the fact that Canadian teen production has been stepping up. ‘There just wasn’t that much of it five to 10 years ago,’ he says. ‘Where there were once one or two flowers standing in a field, it’s now a full garden. There are literally dozens of pitches that come in with teen protagonists.’

Across the pond, Europeans are not expecting to see the same demographic bulge North America is bracing for. According to Peter Silsbee, senior project director at Roper Starch Worldwide, Europe may even see a slight decline in the teen demographic over the next decade. But despite this, teens are still getting more attention than ever before. The reason? They have more money to spend, they have more influence as trendsetters, and new cable and satellite channels make it more economical to chase the smaller teen demo.

London-based Zenith Entertainment is currently in talks to co-produce at least four new teen series, and director of children’s and family programming Peter Murphy says the teen market is on the upswing all over the world. ‘I definitely see it as a growth area in the U.K., and I know some of our colleagues in other countries are keen on the teen area too,’ he says. ‘We have a teenage viewing audience with aspiration, with appetite, with expectation, and they are looking for more original programming.’

Surprisingly, one of Zenith’s new potential teen co-production partners is Children’s Television Workshop, with the still-untitled project bringing CTW into the realm of ‘gritty, social issue-driven teen drama,’ says Murphy. As of press time, Zenith had just delivered suggested formats for the show, and nothing was signed, but if all goes well, the show will probably be produced in Canada for a U.S. audience. Other teen developments at Zenith include a live-action co-production with Warner Bros. International Television called Frightmares, a science-fiction series for teens called Strange Hiding Place, currently being developed with Montreal-based Prisma Productions and shopped to Canada’s YTV, and a series in early development that Murphy describes as ‘The Horse Whisperer for young teens.’

Over at London-based Trouble, one of the world’s few specialty channels specifically targeting teens, head of programming Lisa Opie agrees with Murphy that the market is growing. She says the Flextech-owned youth channel was born two years ago when The Children’s Channel decided to pool all of its teen programming into an all-teen summer. Ratings went up by 167% in two weeks. Now, she is seeing magazine-style regional British programming and other shows for teens on BBC2′s early evening O Zone programming block, Channel 4′s weekend T4 block and ITV.

Opie says broadcasters are paying more attention to teens because their ‘pester power’ and growing discretionary income make them more popular with advertisers. Still, Opie says when it comes to high-quality, locally produced teen dramas, she’s ‘not swamped by any means,’ adding that ‘in Europe, we have come a little later to the prospect of making

programming specifically for teens.’ Thus, to fill its schedule, Trouble produces about 15% to 20% of its programming in-house, with three new shows currently in pre-production. Pop Sushi (26 x 30 minutes) is a fast-paced music show featuring Japanese-style graphics and an animated dinosaur called Popzilla, Grrls Talk (13 x four minutes) is an interview show bringing words of wisdom from

female role models to a teen audience, and Room Raiders (13 x 15 minutes) is a kind of guerrilla interior-decorating show.

France is seeing rising interest in teens too, with recent proposals for two new specialty youth channels and increasing recognition of the demo by broadcasters. Both top French broadcaster TF1 and publicly owned France Television have recently announced interest in developing cable or satellite channels aimed at the 15 to 34 crowd, with teens as a ‘primary target,’ says TF1 communications director Ronald Blunden. For TF1, which dominates most target demographics, with an average domestic market share of 35%, teens are the demographic the channel finds hardest to reach. The new venture is a way to target a group too small for a broadcaster and still ‘keep them in the family,’ Blunden says, adding that the proposed channel, dubbed TFX, is still in its embryonic stage, with talks currently stalled between the French broadcaster and partner Rupert Murdoch at Fox.

The new channel would introduce direct competition to youth-focused French broadcaster M6, which also targets the 15 to 34 demo. M6 children’s programming head Natalie Altmann says interest in the teen set has stepped up in France for the same reasons interest has mounted in the U.K. ‘With all the cable and satellite channels starting to explode into France, people are discovering the interest of niche marketing,’ she says. ‘For advertisers, teenagers are a target that’s more and more important, because you have a teenage culture that’s taken into consideration more and more in today’s society.’

As the teens themselves are taken into consideration more and more, so is the teen market. It looks like after years of both the individuals and the market asking for more respect, broadcasters and producers around the world are starting to pay attention.

New teen series

Outward Bound

Producers: Lancit Media Entertainment (New York) in association with Outward Bound USA

Format: live action,

16 x 30 minutes

Description: a reality-based adventure series featuring teens on

a journey of


Target Audience:

preteens and teens

Budget: US$2.4 million

Distribution: Discovery Networks for U.S., Canada, Latin America, Spain and Portugal

Broadcast: begins airing April 3 on Discovery Channel U.S., begins airing third quarter 1999 on Discovery Latin America, Spain and Portugal


Producers: Cinar (Montreal) in association with KCTS Television, Quest Productions and Discovery Channel

Format: live action,

13 x 30 minutes

Description: a team of young teens work together to track down solutions to scientific questions

Target Audience: preteens and teens ages nine to 15

Budget: US$2.4 million

Distribution: Cinar

Broadcast: began airing on Discovery Channel U.S. last month, began airing on TVOntario in Canada in January


Producers: TVA International (Montreal) in association with JPL Production, original show format from Distraction (Montreal)

Format: multimedia show, 39 x 60 minutes

Description: an interactive variety show about new media and cyberculture, complete with 50 virtual explorers participating on-line

Target Audience: teens and young adults ages 13 to 25

Budget: US$770,000

Distribution: Distraction is representing the show at MIP-TV; long-term distribution rights to be confirmed

Broadcast: began airing on TVA Network in Canada in September

Teen Shorts (Kev & Emm & Chris & Gem)

Producer: Pepper’s Ghost (London)

Format: 3-D CGI animation, 52 x one minute

Description: a series of shorts featuring the weird take on life of four teenagers striving to get a handle on the meaning of it all

Target Audience: teens

Budget: US$320,000

Distribution: Pepper’s Ghost

Broadcast: delivery set for late 1999 (negotiations currently under way with a satellite network)

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