Tune in, drop out

Iden­ti­fy­ing what teens want to watch is a tough chal­lenge for TV chan­nels, writes Erica Thomp­son

Herald Sun - Switched On - - Front Page -

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.’’

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