Tune in, drop out
Identifying what teens want to watch is a tough challenge for TV channels, writes Erica Thompson
ARMED with the latest technology, increasingly impatient teenage viewers are changing the television landscape.
Some networks are rising to the challenge, embracing new formats and delivery, but others are abandoning young audiences in favour of safer programming strategies.
Media lecturer Jason Sternberg says teens have always been difficult to please with research showing those aged 12 to 25 actually watch the least amount of television.
‘‘That stereotype of the teenage couch potato is a myth and that means any network that’s going to gamble on importing or producing an expensive (teen) drama is taking a big risk,’’ he says.
‘‘Teen TV is littered with far more misses than hits. We only remember the hits because they tend to be spectacular.’’
Those on the honour role include Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson’s Creek and The O.C. More recently, glamorous New York teen soap Gossip Girl has emerged as the ‘‘It’’ show for cool kids.
It’s been a hit for Foxtel, but Channel 9 failed to capitalise on Gossip Girl’s popularity when it aired several episodes of the first series this summer. Now it has shelved the program.
Ten also had a flop on its hands when it screened the much-hyped 90210 remake last year. Sternberg says it’s not surprising. Not only do teen shows have to pack plenty of ‘‘cultural capital’’, young viewers are accessing programs from other sources including the internet, subscription television and DVD.
‘‘Foxtel is already into the second season of Gossip Girl,’’ Sternberg says. ‘‘Channel 9 has just started the first season. If you were a hardcore Gossip Girl fan you’re probably sitting at home waiting to download the third season.’’
Ten’s network head of programming, Beverley McGarvey, acknowledges the challenges of keeping up with a fickle teen audience.
‘‘Younger viewers are extremely media-savvy and they won’t be fooled with second-quality content,’’ she says. ‘‘They want highquality content, they want it when they want it and they want it in all different mediums and it’s sort of our job to give them everything they want or they’ll go and find it somewhere else.’’
Ten has embraced multi-platform delivery — from catch-up episodes of shows available online to interactive websites for teen favourites Australian Idol and So You Think You Can Dance.
McGarvey says even the music used in promos has proved crucial in reaching the iPod generation.
‘‘The song that we’re using for the So You Think You Can Dance campaign ( Everybody’s Free by Global Deejays) is in the top 30 in the iTunes chart and it was first released in 1991,’’ she says.
‘‘I think that shows that we’re at least a little bit in touch with what they want.’’
Sternberg agrees reality-TV franchises are far better suited to a teenager’s viewing pattern, but more importantly: ‘‘Things like Idol and Dance have multi-generational and demographic appeal and that’s why they’re a much safer bet than a drama.’’
Pay-TV provided the first real teen-viewing alternative when it launched Fox8 and today also has success with first-run series such as America’s Next Top Model and Smallville.
Foxtel director of programming Ross Crowley says young people are leading the charge for new ways to watch television.
‘‘I suspect that for people who live a non-linear lifestyle, as the younger generation do, entertainment has to be non-linear for them,’’ he says.
‘‘In America — and it will become more apparent here — they’re getting 30 per cent additional viewing not on broadcast TV. It’s off a DVR (digital video recorder), it’s off TiVo, it’s off some sort of delayed thing.
‘‘As they start to dig deeper into that post-broadcast viewing they’re realising that some of the edgier shows and more targeted shows are actually doing great numbers, but are not doing great numbers in traditional broadcast.’’
But mainstream networks can’t afford to risk it yet.
Though Gossip Girl attracted a similar-sized audience on both pay and free to air, it simply wasn’t big enough for Nine.
Even Ten has shifted its core audience focus from 16 to 39-yearolds to 18-49 in recent years.
McGarvey says: ‘‘It’s not that we don’t try to service those (younger) viewers any more. What we’re aspiring to do is create programming that broadly has something for everybody. With 90210 it was great for a teen audience, but there was very little in it for the older audience.
‘‘If someone comes along with a series that has multi-generational appeal — that has a core teen following, but also appeals to older viewers as well — I think that’s the answer.’’
Sternberg says it will become increasingly difficult for networks to create must-see teen TV without the right investment — from sophisticated content to a website and a soundtrack.
‘‘There are so many other things fighting for kids’ attention that a lot of networks will probably throw up their hands and say ‘Well, is it economically worth it?’,’’ he says.
‘‘You can’t just create a TV show, you’ve got to create a phenomenon.’’