For decades, core universal themes such as friendship, family, school, laughter, teamwork, being scared, feeling alone and finding yourself have been the lifeblood of television dramas for tweens and teens. And while the themes have remained consistent over time, what has changed in this mobile device-driven world are kids’ expectations of the content and its delivery platforms.
“Because kids today can make more choices about what they are watching, it means they can stick with more complex stories, which they have been asking for,” says Sarah Muller, UK pubcaster CBBC’s head of acquisitions and drama development. “Having access to higher quality dramatic programming enables them to have their own water-cooler moments as adults do with popular shows like House of Cards and Game of Thrones,” she adds. “If anything kids want more drama because they have seen it elsewhere.”
Muller says the BBC sits in an envious position because part of its mandate is to create high-quality, thoughtful dramatic content that pays attention to detail for its audience. “Our kids drama now is as good as anything playing in the adult space; it’s obviously just age-appropriate,” says Muller. “This is increasingly important as we’ve become platform agnostic.”
She points to BBC Worldwide’s recent acquisition of Toronto, Canada-based Temple Street Productions’ reality-style tween series The Next Step as a good example of how a youth drama can have legs and travel if it stays close to the heartbeat of its tween viewers.
The single-cam show created by Frank van Keeken (Wingin’ It) was the top-ranked series this past fall for Family Channel across all specialty stations in Canada, and was also recently snapped up by Hulu (US), CBBC (UK), Disney Channel (Australia), Sky Italia and Hrvatska Televizija/HRT (Croatia).
Muller says the brand’s interactive extensions—including an after-show web series that features character interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, commentary and an online dance mash-up tool that fans can use to create their own music videos—were big selling points for the broadcaster. “We are committing to it the same way we would commit to a top-line drama of our own,” says Muller.
A few key things that make the show unique, according to Temple Street’s senior director of scripted programming Laura Harbin, are its improvised nature and tween (as opposed to teen) target.
“A lot of the creation of the show happens on the fly. Instead of scripts with dialogue, we use outlines that explain what will happen in the scenes, then we let the actors come up with their own dialogue,” says Harbin. “There is a real organic nature to the show which is different from comedies.”
Addressing its serialized, cliffhanger format, Harbin says the show’s recent sale to Hulu will work well for kids’ current viewing habits. “A lot of kids comment that the show is too short—and it isn’t—but they feel like it ends too soon. Now if they have Hulu, they will be able to binge.”
CBBC has also been using the latest platform and social media tactics to its advantage in the drama space with its first-ever web-only dramedy Dixi. Addressing real-world web safety issues through a fictitious online social networking site, the Kindle Entertainment co-production launched in February as a series of 30 daily webisodes. They depict the story of a teenage girl who must uncover the mystery behind who hacked her social media profile.
With Dixi as a start, Muller says the BBC is committed to introducing interactive micro-storytelling elements to new dramas. “We’re increasingly looking at how to tell stories that take advantage of an interactive, online or mobile platform. It’s an incredibly high-concept, low-cost way of bringing different types of storytelling to our audience,” she says.
Whether CBBC is able to parlay Dixi into a global success remains to be seen, but the production further diversifies the channel’s already robust lineup of hit dramas including new teen fantasy series Wolf Blood and upcoming 36 x 15-minute in-house production World’s End.
According to Nickelodeon International SVP of production and development Nina Hahn, there is no standard formula for finding worldwide success with youth drama—it works differently for every property. In the case of Nick’s popular US/UK production, the soap-style mystery adventure series House of Anubis, extra attention was paid to cultural nuances and, of course, language.
“IPs like these have to speak to the whole world, so one of the biggest challenges is ensuring you have a global lingo and storyline that appeals to the viewer wherever they might be,” says Hahn. “And how you produce is very culturally specific. For example, UK productions aren’t used to having a writer on the floor while you are shooting, whereas the US is very used to that.”
Sizing up interactive extensions for dramas, Hahn says it’s not so much about how an IP is delivered, but more about how good it is. “It’s less about the medium and more about the quality of what you are making and how on-brand it is for your end-user,” she says.
With three seasons of Anubis on the market, Hahn says there are no immediate plans for a new season or more dramedies, but Nick is always on the lookout for strong, humor-based creator-driven content. “With the success of [US productions] The Thundermans and The Haunted Hathaways, those are big places to watch in terms of the live-action space,” she says.
Everybody wants something
As Nick continues to focus on what it does best, the producers of the critically acclaimed, long-running Canadian teen drama Degrassi are preparing to serve up more of their special brand of teen angst. Now entering its 14th season with a total of 457 episodes produced since its 1980 debut, Degrassi: The Next Generation keeps rolling for co-creator and executive producer Linda Schuyler and her team at Toronto’s Epitome Pictures.
She says one of the biggest challenges of an enduring series is the constant search for relevancy. “You have to stay true to your core message while also reflect the reality of the changing world that not only the kids are living in, but the broadcasters, too,” Schuyler says.
Currently airing on MTV (Canada), on TeenNick (US) and licensed to more than 140 international countries, Degrassi‘s ratings were up 27% over its last chapter among viewers ages 12 to 34 according to Canada’s Bell Media as of February 11,.
Schuyler is particularly enthused that Degrassi‘s after show, After Degrassi, continues to keep its young fans engaged. “It’s another way MTV has taken a hard look at what we’re doing and tried to find its own way to keep Degrassi fresh.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Kidscreen