North America’s teen drama production boom finds purchase at home and abroad

A 10-year-old baby boom makes tween the missing piece on many kidnets' skeds this year. The increased demand has lit a fire under North American prodcos to churn out tween live-action shows, while international co-pros up-age as far as global market...
January 1, 2001

A 10-year-old baby boom makes tween the missing piece on many kidnets’ skeds this year. The increased demand has lit a fire under North American prodcos to churn out tween live-action shows, while international co-pros up-age as far as global market sensibilites allow. KidScreen also brainpicks top kid creative minds in search of golden nuggets on the method to their madness.

Bye-bye Bugs? Adios Donald? Maybe not yet, but the past year has surely seen an increase in State-side demand for new character-based live-action fare aimed at tweens and teens, from broadcasters, producers and particularly the growing audience of 12- to 15-year-olds. ‘Animation tends to skew younger,’ notes Joel Andryc, executive VP of programming and development for Fox Family Channel and Fox Kids Network. ‘How do we fill that niche for the 14-year-olds? Live action is the right genre for that audience.’

Andryc isn’t alone in trying to reach that elusive demo. In fact, across the broadcasting board, the target these days is tween eyeballs. Greg Phillips, president of U.K.-based Fireworks International, confirms the demand: ‘We think the genre has been underserved, and it is increasingly attractive to broadcasters and kid channels that want an alternative to animation.’

So what happened? ‘A few years ago, it was preschool, preschool, preschool because of the baby boom that happened 10 years back,’ explains Fox’s Andryc. ‘Now the wave is suddenly moving out of the six to 11 range and starting to grow into nine to 14, causing that audience to swell in size.’

One thing’s for sure-the programming is there, and it’s performing very well. Fox Family has a smash hit with paranormal teen adventure The Zack Files, based on a David Greenburg book series. The show pulled a 1.4 rating with girls ages nine to 14, clobbering Nick’s Ren & Stimpy and Cartoon’s Scooby-Doo in December. Plans are underway to place the series on Fox Kids’ Saturday morning broadcast schedule because ‘it’s consistently been pulling in a strong, slightly older boy and girl audience,’ says Andryc.

Zack is produced by Canada’s Decode, and Decode partner Steven DeNure is enthused by the market response to the tween drama and the genre as a whole. ‘We think there is a high degree of interest in teen or tween live-action shows, not just in North America, but internationally as well. And we’ve really seen that with The Zack Files, which has gotten a terrific reaction on the global scene.’

Decode has a new teen series called Our Hero, which follows the life of a wired 17-year-old girl who writes a `zine about herself, her life and her family. ‘It’s just gone to air on the CBC in Canada,’ says DeNure. ‘It’s gotten an excellent reaction from the network, and has aired in the U.K. on teen channel Trouble.’ In keeping with the on-line component of the show, Decode has hooked up with Extend Media to create a funky companion website that prolongs the experience.

High-concept but relatable themes are key to creating successful tween-skewing live action, and Toronto-based AAC Kids has had success placing two such series on the Disney Channel. In A Heartbeat, which features a team of high school students thrust into hair-raising lifesaving emergency medical situations, launched on The Mouse in August 2000. The Famous Jett Jackson is about a teen superstar’s attempt to lead a normal middle-class American life, despite his friends and fans expecting him to be the fictional action hero he isn’t. The half-hour live-actioner debuted in October `98.

Cinar Entertainment president Peter Moss agrees that realism is essential when dealing with young teens. ‘The closer you stay to reality and the stronger the connection to the inner life of what’s happening with kids-being aware of what their developmental issues and concerns are-the greater your success will be. Mind you these concerns are not whether to choose red bubble gum or blue bubble gum, but defining who they are, what challenges they face, what life is like at age 12, and what are the next big things in life. As long as you stay true to that, you are engaging them. When you stray from that or forget your audience, you’ll turn them off.’

Cinar is currently developing Normal, a live-action half-hour show aimed at ages 10 to 13 that centers on kids who have psychic powers. Says Moss: ‘It’s a metaphor for what it’s like to be a teenager-which is to say `different’ but not too different-and struggling to look and fit in.’

Getting real is also the point of Edgemont, a Fox Family co-production with the CBC in Canada. The half-hour series, premiering on Fox Saturday afternoons this month, is a high school coming-of-age soap opera. ‘It explores a lot of issues kids go through, like gossip and betrayal, friendship and dating, issues of drinking and questioning parental authority,’ says Fox’s Andryc. ‘It’s very relevant for today’s kids. We do deal with some issues that may prove to be a little controversial, but we want to put the show out in a responsible way so that kids come away learning a life lesson and also being entertained. We’re working with educators, and we’re working with the Kaiser Family Foundation [a non-profit health organization in the U.S.] to make sure there are educational guides to go out to the schools. Seventeen magazine and the Kaiser Foundation are doing a survey on teen attitudes towards sexual feelings and thoughts.’

Keeping live-action teen dramas edgy enough to engage the audience without pushing the boundaries of decency and morality eschewed by adult society can be a tricky endeavor. ‘We hear, mainly from our marketing people, that kids are getting older younger,’ says Decode’s DeNure. ‘And I think that most broadcasters are doing what they can so they don’t lose the tween audience to more adult-skewing fare. Part of the solution is to up-age the content a bit by focusing on older protagonists or by featuring slightly more mature subject matter.’

‘In the live-action arena, the amount of programming is growing and getting even more sophisticated,’ says Firework’s Phillips. ‘Tweens are very specific and astute about what they want. They have cable and the Internet and home video, and can find just about anything they want to watch. I think certain classic themes and shows certainly will have a place, but I think young teens are looking for style and freshness of content-as much as adults do, if not more so. They get the freshness and ideas and speed everyday from the computer, and television has got to reflect that.’

Fireworks, a unit of Canada’s CanWest, produces and distributes such tween dramas as The 100 Deeds of Eddie McDowd, Even Stevens and Just a Kid (known as Caitlin’s Way on the Disney Channel in the U.S). ‘I have to say there is a genuine appetite out there for shows that broadcasters feel will appeal to the tween audience. They are choosy, but are willing to step up to the plate for quality programming.’

Quality, but at what price? Cinar’s Peter Moss notes: ‘There’s not a huge budgetary difference [between teen live action and animation]. It’s slightly less expensive, but only slightly. It’s quicker to produce, that’s for sure.’

Decode’s DeNure adds, ‘We’re shooting a new Zack Files episode every week. But live-action series differ from animation in a major way, in that casting is hugely important. However great the writing is on the production, it comes down to having charismatic leads kids identify with and want to tune in to each week and spend time with.’

North American prodcos and nets are betting strong that live-action teen dramas will continue to captivate the new core audience of young boomer offspring. Upcoming productions run the range from reality to fantasy. Now in production from Fireworks is Being Eve, a co-pro with New Zealand-based South Pacific Pictures about a young girl bumbling through teenagehood. Meanwhile, Fox Family does its take on melding popular tween topics with Wizards, a supernatural adventure described as ‘Harry Potter meets Buffy’ that will debut next fall.

The current boom in young teen drama production in North America jibes beautifully with the state of the nation in Europe. Although Euro TV nets are aware of the significance of the young teen (13- to 16-year-old) demo-both as a growing consumption concern and as future members of the all-important 18 to 49 demo-this awareness has not yet translated into a meaningful level of comedy and drama production aimed at them. With a few exceptions, fiction for teens is acquired from the U.S. or Australia. The easy explanation for this is that the cost of imported shows is much lower than producing original drama, but there are other factors that are just as significant.

Firstly, the bigger networks in Europe find it difficult to justify slots (and therefore budgets) for young teens-particularly when this age group tends to watch shows aimed at the broader 12- to 24-year-old demo.

Secondly, Europe does not possess the wealth of trained writing talent that turns out slick, big-budget dramas and comedies like Dawson’s Creek, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (all popular series in Europe).

Thirdly, European teens are attracted to U.S. (and Australian) comedy and drama because it offers escapism from their own school and social experiences, which they perceive as humdrum. Southern Star Sales CEO Cathy Payne says Aussie soap Home & Away’s appeal is that it is ‘set in a beachside community. It is brighter and perhaps more optimistic than local soaps.’ She sees a similar appeal in U.S. dramas and comedies like Sabrina, Charmed and Saved by the Bell, ‘which are probably more glamorous than local product.’

The U.K.-a mature production base with a strong track record in drama for eight- to 12-year-olds-is a classic example of how European TV markets serve teens.

For a start, dominant kids channels Children’s BBC and Children’s ITV regard the remit of their afternoon programming blocks as ending at age 12. Although there is some upward spillage on hard-hitting popular dramas like Grange Hill (BBC1) and Byker Grove (ITV), teenagers are too elusive and demanding to fit comfortably within a typical children’s schedule.

Instead, the BBC serves this audience between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on weekday evenings. Imported Aussie docusoap Neighbours captures teens on BBC1, who then migrate to sister channel BBC2 to catch shows such as The Simpsons, Farscape, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell High (just Roswell in the U.S.). This treatment outlines the point that young teens are usually bundled in with a broadly defined youth/family schedule. Decode Entertainment partner Neil Court takes the argument a stage further by pointing out how peak-time soaps have also sought to co-opt teen audiences. ‘A show like Eastenders (airing on BBC1 at 7:30 p.m.) does strong teen numbers by introducing young characters on a regular basis.’

ITV doesn’t have a second mainstream channel, so the opportunities to target teens are restricted to weekend evenings, when shows like Gladiators and Stars in Their Eyes have been mainstays in recent years. Instead, minority networks Channel 4 (11% audience share) and Channel 5 (6%) have sought to win the teen demo.

Channel 4′s approach has involved the greatest investment. Having started in the mid-1990s with a long-term commitment to Mersey Television’s teen soap Hollyoaks, C4 created a teen block called T4 for Sunday mornings in 1999 (with a complementary web presence).

There are now plans for T4 to get a beefed-up daily presence on C4′s new digital entertainment channel E4, with the spine of the enhanced schedule being a new 21 x 30-minute commission called As If. Although there are few details available as yet, As If-which will be produced by Carnival Films-is expected to skew younger than Hollyoaks.

Although C4 has been trailing hard-hitting Hollyoaks story lines in recent months, Dawson’s Creek is the most hotly anticipated teen show on T4. Repeats of season three were aired over Christmas 2000, with the as-yet-unseen season 4 due to debut in January 2001.

Channel 5′s main live-action play for teens has been Cloud 9′s futuristic soap The Tribe. Although the show has developed a cult following in its Saturday tea-time slot, there is no obvious desire at C5 to commission more original teen drama. Instead, a ground-breaking investment was made in acquiring Home & Away.

The dearth of local teen drama production at the main networks is echoed by the lineup at pay-TV teen network Trouble, which takes a 0.3% share of viewing in U.K. cable and satellite homes.

At the peak of the fall season, the major comedies/dramas on the network between 4 p.m. and midnight all originated from the U.S. or Australia, with Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Hangin’ with Mr Cooper, Hang Time, City Guys, Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane, Weird Science, Saved by the Bell-the New Class, USA High, Malibu and Heartbreak High topping the slate. Trouble’s big debut for the season was Young Americans.

Trouble parent company Flextech has been talking to U.K. indie producers about increasing its commitment to local production, but this is unlikely to lead to drama commissions for the teen network. Satisfied with the performance of its U.S. reality imports, the channel will likely stick to that genre for local orders.

Trouble’s popularity with teens indicates that there is room in the burgeoning digital cable and satellite environment for more services for youth demos. In addition to E4, non-subscription digital channel ITV2 also skews young, though its emphasis has been on sports and magazine shows rather high-cost original drama.

Nick UK, with digital hours opening up late evenings, is also looking to target young teens-a demo that would not normally fall within its remit. So far, the main focus is dramedy pick-ups such as Moesha and Sister, Sister, as well as Nick library fare like Kenan & Kel. Locally produced Nick drama Renford Rejects also airs at 8 p.m., though this was originally commissioned with Nick’s traditional kid target audience in mind.

Perhaps the best prospect for U.K. teen drama production (outside E4) is the radical overhaul being introduced at the BBC by recently installed director-general Greg Dyke.

Dyke wants to create seven U.K. television services across five channels, including the current lineup of BBC1 and BBC2. This portfolio will secure an extra US$680 million a year for production by 2002. Within this model, a new channel called BBC3 will target youth audiences with a mix of comedy, drama, arts and social action programming. There will also be shows for six- to 13-year-olds on BBC4.

Dyke backed his plans by arguing that: ‘Nearly half of all children live in multichannel homes where they watch predominantly U.S. shows. Shouldn’t they have a choice of British shows?’ If he is serious about this commitment, then original drama for young teens is an obvious gap that needs to be filled.

The story is not much different in other major European territories. In France, youth-oriented M6 network takes 23.2% of the 15- to 24-year-old demo by airing a combination of domestic entertainment shows (like La Nuit du Net, a post-midnight show about the web that rakes in a 32.4% share of 15- to 24-year-olds) and U.S. dramas. This year’s acquired shows have included Stargate SG1, Charmed, Buffy, Moesha and Lois & Clark, The New Adventures of Superman.

Public network France 2 has also been airing youth fare in prime time for some years (though not specifically young teen shows). Decode’s Court reports that the channel has acquired Our Hero for an afternoon slot.

Leading French kids channel Canal J tends to rely on popular domestically produced magazine shows such as Faut Que Ca Saut, Iapiap and Pas d’Quartier for big ratings with young teen viewers. In dramedy, acquisitions such as Sabrina and Cousin Skeeter head the bill. There is some domestic production from companies like Marathon, which introduced high school-based teen comedy Spank (40 x 26 minutes) earlier this year, however this is the exception rather than the rule.

In Germany, RTL2 has done well with young audiences as a result of acquisitions like Pokémon and Big Brother. But again, the young teen audience tends to exist on the fringe of the target demo of those shows rather than at the core. ZDF/ARD kids network KI.KA airs weekly soaps like Schloss Einstein (an ARD production that’s now up to 100 episodes), however KI.KA skews younger than the demo in question.

When all of the factors militating against young teen drama production are taken into consideration, it would be surprising if there is a shift in European production policy in the near future. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that drama as a genre is under pressure in Europe. With reality game shows like Making the Band, Popstars and Big Brother capable of delivering huge cross-generational ratings to European networks at a lower cost than drama, it would be a brave commissioning executive who advocates domestic teen drama as a schedule-driver-particularly when acquired shows like Neighbours and Home & Away keep doing the job.

Southern Star-distributed teen soap Home & Away, which adds a staggering 230 episodes a year to its total output, has previously aired on ITV in the U.K. and is lined up for twice-daily transmission on C5 starting in July 2001. Home & Away’s success is replicated across Europe. It is stripped on RTE Ireland, VTM Belgium and TV2 Norway, with Denmark, Italy and Hungary picking up the show this year. Southern Star’s Payne believes it has lasted so long ‘because it has continually adapted to teenagers’ evolving TV tastes.’

There are, of course, occasional exceptions. The most obvious is S Club 7 in Miami, a music-based series created by band manager Simon Fuller, the BBC and Initial Kids. Decode’s Court believes London’s pivotal role on the global music scene means it could act as the location for more young teen series capable of breaking into the U.S. and continental Europe.

Endemol UK distribution chief Peter van den bussche agrees. He is in continued talks with sister company Initial about teen series that could feature bands. The beauty of such concepts is that they are not reliant on the vagaries of domestic commissioning. ‘I think there is room for producer/distributors like Endemol to bring Initial together with music companies and sponsors to create a show that could succeed internationally.’ (For more on music-centric teen series, see ‘Music programming best nets U.S. tween eyeballs,’ on page 19.)

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