Viewpoint: Kids and user-generated content – early adopters may become early abandoners

Talent TV's John Marley puts the latest programming trend under the microscope and finds that without framing homemade content with good back stories, kids will likely jump off the UCG bandwagon as quickly as they hopped on it.
March 5, 2007

Let’s face it, we in the media love a fad. A trend, a bandwagon upon which to leap, a fashion that has to be squeezed into a size zero outfit and completely exhausted. The problem is that in these days of 8 MB broadband, 3G mobile phones and TVs in every room, trends seem to fly at us faster and with more fury than ever before. And by the time commissioners and programming execs catch on, the fad has usually gone binge-eating, piled on the pounds and shuffled off into obscurity.

Witness the latest media obsession: user-generated content (or home video if, like me, you are old enough to remember Betamax), which is beginning to find a foothold on channels all over the world. Ironically, at the same time, the all-conquering democratizer of televisual content, YouTube, has up and sold itself to the big bad corporate world.

So while the be-suited commissioners and money men begin to grasp for the latest ‘must do’ thing, they seem to ignore the fact that no one has really thought about how to ‘monetize’ these homemade clips to any significant degree. Their rationale seems to be ‘the kids seem to like it, so we better get involved’…hadn’t we?

Well, who knows? Over the years, UGC has been seen, in the UK at least, on channels as diverse as Trouble, Bravo, ITV and even the lofty likes of BBC2, but it hasn’t really made that much of a splash. In our brand-new, shiny, PDA-driven 21st century, the popularity of UGC surely has as much to do with forsaking your mid-morning water cooler chat and a glance at the latest Dilbert cartoon to browse the web for something funny to e-mail your mates. But is that really a programming revolution in the making?

Nickelodeon seems to think it might well be, and has decided to take the plunge into the choppy waters of access TV for younger viewers with the creation of ‘ME:TV’ – a nightly block that is, as one executive claims, ‘The next step in convergent entertainment for this multiplatform generation of kids.’

What? Kids? A multiplatform generation?

The reality here is surely very different. Kids are only interested in good content. They just want to see stuff – preferably entertaining, funny stuff that they can share with their friends easily – stuff that resonates with them and their lives.

Furthermore, kids are certainly not platform-loyal. They are not usually part of the consumer decision-making that determines whether or not they have access to a 3G mobile phone or a broadband connection, so they can’t be classified as being the driving force behind our multiplatform ghetto-ization of content. We can thank accountants for that.

There is no doubt that kids are early adopters. They certainly don’t approach new technology with the fear, dread, cold sweats and irrational need for a Starbucks latte that many parents do. However, we should always remember that whilst they are early adopters, kids are also the most fickle of audiences. Early adopters can so easily transform into early abandoners. UGC, like many fads that has gone before it, will not be immune to kids’ flights of fancy.

I can understand why commissioners can get dazzled by the idea of getting kids to provide editorial content. It’s cheaper, you can own the rights in every format in perpetuity and, if they film it, it must – as I mentioned earlier – resonate with them, right?

Well, not necessarily. In my experience, kids consume their media in much the same way they play football (that’s soccer for those of you who are looking forward to seeing David Beckham in L.A.). They all chase the ball…at the same time. Somewhere in the middle of the heaving mass of kids is the object of desire. They need the approval and presence of their significant others to reassure them that what they are chasing is indeed the right thing to pursue. And while there is still a certain cachet for those kids lucky enough to actually see themselves on TV, the rise of home video and webcam has slightly dulled this as a motivator. In a kid’s mind these days, it’s only exciting to be seen on TV arriving somewhere swish in a limo, being chased by the paparazzi!

Now if, as a producer, you package that thing correctly for them, then you could have a hit on your hands. The user-generated prospect that will work best for the kids’ audience, I believe, is one that springs from a larger back concept that will already have some appeal in the minds of children. Get them hooked into a back story, and then you can shape the content with which they start to provide you. That way you are more likely to get footage that will be genuinely ‘on message’ for your audience and hopefully make for good content.

At Talent, John Marley has been instrumental in the development and creation of 55 x half-hour live-action reality hit Best of Friends, currently in its third run on both CBBC and the CBBC Channel. He is also directing the second series of Cartoon Network UK’s Skatoony, the world’s first kids game show combining live action and animation.

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