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The co-viewing conundrum

The rise of reality television at the beginning of this decade gave parents another palatable out for watching TV with their kids. Sure The Simpsons and sitcoms like Friends had served as common ground for some time, but tweens, and their families became enthralled by the novel antics of contestants on Survivor, Fear Factor and, more recently, the Idol franchise. Then along came Hannah Montana, High School Musical and iCarly, and the eight to 12 demo started tuning into Disney and Nickelodeon in record numbers again with parental approval. But with more and more live-action Hannah-esque fare finding its way on to kidcaster skeds, the upper-end of the demo is growing restless with the genre, graduating past these family-friendly comedies and moving on to arguably age-inappropriate fare such as The Hills, Gossip Girl and Twilight. It's a viewer migration pattern that threatens to leave the kids entertainment world as an industry geared towards solely serving six to nines and preschoolers.
March 27, 2009

The rise of reality television at the beginning of this decade gave parents another palatable out for watching TV with their kids. Sure The Simpsons and sitcoms like Friends had served as common ground for some time, but tweens, and their families became enthralled by the novel antics of contestants on Survivor, Fear Factor and, more recently, the Idol franchise. Then along came Hannah Montana, High School Musical and iCarly, and the eight to 12 demo started tuning into Disney and Nickelodeon in record numbers again with parental approval. But with more and more live-action Hannah-esque fare finding its way on to kidcaster skeds, the upper-end of the demo is growing restless with the genre, graduating past these family-friendly comedies and moving on to arguably age-inappropriate fare such as The Hills, Gossip Girl and Twilight. It’s a viewer migration pattern that threatens to leave the kids entertainment world as an industry geared towards solely serving six to nines and preschoolers.

Industry players are well aware of the development. As Deirdre Brennan, director of programming at Nickelodeon Australia cautions, ‘If we don’t try something new, we could be in danger of being irrelevant for the upper age group in the kids world.’ The good news is that there are companies out there that have been successful in the past year in creating the content older tweens crave – series that break the mould and fuse adult primetime production values and writing styles with concepts adapted from popular formats currently proliferating on adult-skewing nets.

Primetime writing, age-appropriate concepts
Getting older tweens to tune in means crafting shows that hit the right note with their increasingly grown-up sensibilities – after all there’s a world of difference developmentally between an eight- and a 12-year-old (See ‘Irreconcilable differences?’ p. 82). And thanks to worldwide syndication that puts adult series such as The Simpsons, Family Guy and Friends on-air often in after-school slots, this generation of tweens has come to expect its entertainment to contain the sharp satire and quick, smart dialogue that drive these series. ‘It’s not a kids writing approach at all,’ says Brennan. ‘It’s more about the way the characters interact and the fast-paced dialogue and the sophisticated writing style.’

It’s not to say that kids TV should start including mature allusions and adult themes, but adopting primetime writing techniques is helping kids producers make inroads with older tweens, regardless of style. In fact, Toronto, Canada’s Fresh TV has innovated the tried-and-true tween live-action sitcom on two fronts with much success. The writing in its series 6Teen and Cartoon Network US smash hit Total Drama Island have captured the tone and cadence of adult comic fare, but have done so as cartoons, bucking conventional wisdom that kids, particularly girls, abandon animation at around age nine. Interestingly, TDI – a parody of Survivor-like reality shows built around the concept of contestant elimination that features a wide-ranging cast of teenagers – made a lot of broadcasters nervous before it debuted on Canada’s Teletoon to stellar ratings. The series went on to draw the largest boys and girls nine to 14 audience that CN US has had to date.

At ‘Don’t Forget the 8 to 12s’ (a panel session which took place at KidScreen Summit in February), Fresh executive producer Tom McGillis said that because TDI followed a Survivor-like model, where characters had to be eliminated every week, and was a high-concept show not yet seen in the kids’ space, it frightened potential broadcasters and several ended up taking a pass. Additionally, he admitted that Fresh series are designed to speak directly to 12-year-olds, with little attention paid to co-viewing appeal. (6Teen has a good co-view rate on Teletoon, but McGillis said it’s a happy side-effect.)

To hit that bull’s eye, Fresh’s team spent a lot of time conducting research on their target audience, asking kids how they felt about reality shows, what they liked and didn’t. As it turned out, McGillis said, the majority were fans of challenge-based shows such as Survivor, Fear Factor and The Amazing Race. What they hated were series full of romantic entanglements and back-biting à la The Bachelor and Temptation Island – essentially any series ‘where grownups act like total dorks,’ he said. So with the concept in place, Fresh brought in writers who could deliver the satire, with a healthy dose of physical humor, in modern-day teen vernacular. In fact, McGillis said his team immerses itself in all aspects of tween culture, reading what they read and even eavesdropping on their conversations at malls around North America.

Similarly, Montreal’s Carpediem Film & TV and TV-Loonland in Germany are hoping to innovate older-tween-targeted animation with new co-pro My Life Me, slated for delivery in the second half of 2009. While it revolves around the staple of a girl’s life at school, the series weaves of-the-moment manga comic writing style and animation into the storyline. Carpediem president and executive producer Marie-Claude Beauchamp explains that its episodes focus on dealing directly with teen emotions through the art form. ‘Manga for us was the perfect design tool for expressing those emotions without being corny and to speak to tweens in their own language,’ she says.

Over at the net that started the current craze in tween programming, Disney Channel SVP of original series Adam Bonnett says his goal now is to develop shows with primetime-quality humor and storytelling that happen to be kids entertainment.

‘We’ve had tremendous success finding kids and putting them in the right roles and turning them into superstars,’ says Bonnett, noting that the casting techniques Disney has mastered over the years is a key part of its creative process. But, he says, more and more the strategy includes bringing on primetime writers to develop high-concept storylines. ‘Eight to 12s want to feel like they are watching something that is challenging them,’ says Bonnett. ‘You have to tell a story that they haven’t seen before and approach the comedy in an unexpected way.’

Girl-skewing series Sonny With a Chance, which debuted in February, is one of Disney’s first new series to reflect this approach. Think the behind-the-scenes drama that Liz Lemon deals with on the set of 30-Rock, only focusing on a tween girl who happens to be an envied up-and-coming star of a sketch comedy show. While it invokes familiar tween tropes (small-town girl finds fame and fortune in Hollywood), the show-within-the-show is a well-loved adult format – the sketch comedy series. Disney has introduced a new format by marrying it to a strong narrative storyline, to which kids can relate.

New format infusion
Nick Australia’s Brennan is also looking to develop new formats inspired by the adult world in which kids are engaged as a means of keeping older tweens tuned in. She sees a danger in relying on only one format, namely the wildly successful kidnet sitcom. ‘There’s an opportunity right now to innovate because of the variety of formats and the creative opportunities that will come out of that need,’ she says.

Brennan, however, admits that in tough economic times, it’s challenging for broadcasters to take a risk on financing a new show concept with no guarantee that it will work. ‘We have to look at different ways of testing things with the tween audience to see what connects with them,’ says Brennan. She says filming three-minute serials exclusively for online is a low-cost option and also sees made-for-TV movies as a good start. ‘It’s a different financing model and things can always develop out of a 70-minute movie,’ she says.

Another is to try putting good examples of non-traditional kids programming in timeslots usually reserved for the co-viewing audience. Currently, Brennan’s lined up CCI Entertainment’s reality-based Ghost Trackers, game show My Family’s Got Guts from Worldwide Biggies, and Little Portman Films/CBBC sketch show Sorry I’ve Got No Head for those spots. ‘Ghost Trackers travels well because it’s scary and puts kids in amazing situations and you feel so involved,’ she notes. She’s also looking at putting a kids spin on Wipeout, the Japanese-influenced game show that swept primetime ratings this past summer in the US on ABC. The series’ physical challenges are tinged with an element of comic embarrassment that should strike a chord with older tweens.

Corus Kids VP of content Jocelyn Hamilton, who oversees programming at Canada’s YTV, agrees that mimicking adult programming from a kid point of view is key to breaking new ground with this demo. One of the channel’s latest co-productions with Halifax Film, That’s So Weird, is an hour-long, 13-ep sketch comedy show helmed by primetime writers who’ve done stints on successful adult comedy series, including Kids in the Hall and Corner Gas. Launching in September 2009, the non-traditional kids program, features seven young sketch comedy players who operate their own tiny high school-based cable TV network, So Weird TV. The eps feature sketches, a newsmagazine, fauxmercials, mock trailers and PSAs to target eight- to 12 year-olds who are no longer little kids, and not yet teens. The comedy also parodies existing teen shows with short 90-second spoofs. Think Depressi High, Are You Smarter Than Darth Vader? and Really Smallville.

Toronto’s Decode Entertainment, meanwhile, has a half-hour pilot on deck that’s turned to primetime mockumentary The Office for its inspiration. The Classroom delivers a unique behind-the-scenes look at a high school class full of teen characters whose antics are being shot by a documentary film crew. And it’s complete with the close-ups and confessionals that are central to the narrative and comedy of both the UK and US versions of The Office. As such, it’s also got the edgier tone favored by older tweens but conveys kid-net appropriate subject matter. ‘The key is creating the illusion that it’s older than it actually is,’ says Decode’s VP of distribution, Josh Scherba.

In the UK, CBBC has gone some way to moving beyond comedy and entering new territory in the hour-long drama format with The Sarah Jane Adventures. The net took the novel approach of spinning off the series from a clear family favorite Doctor Who. Steven Andrew, head of drama, animation and acquisitions, said at the same KidScreen Summit session attended by Fresh’s McGillis, the spin-off strategy ‘came from the need to cut through clutter and establish new ground.’

The series revolves around a group of kids fighting aliens and explores the anxieties of growing up that is a central theme in many tween-targeted series. But the presence of Sarah Jane, the adult character from Doctor Who, legitimizes the cross-over and helps draw in the audience, explained Andrew. The one drawback to the strategy, he admitted, is that attaining the primetime production values meant the series’ budget was double that of a regular kids drama. The extra resources pooled for the series under the helm of Doctor Who head creator Russell T. Davies – including borrowing from the sets, special effects and modeling from the sibling series – made for a better product, said Andrew. The proof, he contends, is that it’s currently the top show on CBBC, outperforming its nearest competitor by a ratio of 2 to 1.

Relevance, like, rules
Kidcasters and producers interested in keeping pace with the over-10 crowd need to ask one question, ‘How are we relevant?’ For Paul DeBenedittis, SVP of programming strategy at Disney Channels Worldwide, its one of the first topics he tackles when considering a new concept.

‘For Disney, it’s really growing beyond the schedule to multi-platforming and, ultimately, pop culture,’ says DeBenedittis. His colleague Bonnett agrees and adds that the Disney’s goal is to define pop culture, not follow it – a strategy employed to great effect as it led the way in the latest round of tween programming with Hannah and HSM.

So what’s preoccupying the Disney programming team now? In short, it’s the connection to tweens outside of linear television. ‘They are talking about what they saw, what song they just downloaded , what clip they just watched and are telling their friends about it and sending links to it,’ says DeBenedittis. So looking ahead, he’s also examining what else is out there beyond the scripted sitcom and is exploring how to capture the world of pop culture with a side of reality. However, he explains, ‘I want something that is for them, not something from an older-skewed network that we’re just suddenly trying to age down.’

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