In Depth

The Quest for Youth Spurs TV Experiment

Will ‘Gossip Girl’ Test Lure Key Demo to TV?

The CW last week embarked on an experiment intended to solve the broadcast television networks’ growing difficulty in reaching younger viewers.

The fifth-ranked English-language network said it won’t stream full episodes of its top scripted show, “Gossip Girl,” on the CW Web site for five weeks, part of an effort to drive Internet viewers back to television screens.

“For these next five weeks the epicenter of the ‘Gossip Girl’ universe will be on The CW’s broadcast television airwaves,” Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment at The CW, said in a statement. CW spokesman Paul McGuire emphasized the effort is purely experimental.

The “Gossip Girl” move will test the extent to which content streaming on The CW’s Web site cannibalizes its broadcast ratings.

It’s a risky gambit, seemingly swimming against other networks’ inclination to think that Web incarnations of favorite shows can support ratings on TV. The move illustrates the lengths to which networks are willing to go to draw in the young viewers of today—who will be in the key 18- to 49-year-old demographic soon enough.

Increased Defections

Defections from the Big Four networks by 18- to 34-year-old viewers have increased year-over-year for the past three seasons, gaining steam from a 2% decline in audience, to a 3% drop, to a 9% fall in the latest season (which was crippled by the Writers Guild of America strike).
In its two years of existence, The CW has dipped 25% in that demographic.

The CW targets the 18-34 demo specifically to differentiate itself from the rest of the broadcast pack, said John Maatta, chief operating officer of the network.

Still, its programming leads the list of shows that draw younger viewers. “America’s Next Top Model,” “One Tree Hill,” “Beauty and the Geek” and “Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious” all are among the 10 shows with the youngest audiences.

The CW and Fox dominate the lineup of the top 20 youngest-skewing shows on broadcast TV. That in turn makes them attractive to advertisers, said Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research at Horizon Media.

“They don’t have to do huge numbers, they just have to stay focused on their core viewers,” he said.

However, in the older demographics, The CW is a perennial fifth-place finisher among the broadcast networks in prime-time ratings.

As young as a show might skew, networks still need to get viewers in front of the television screen. And as busy and tech-savvy as the younger demographic is, that’s easier said than done. That’s what makes the CW’s “Gossip Girl” experiment perilous.

The 18- to 34-year-old viewers “won’t necessarily change their lives for ‘Gossip Girl,’” said John Miller, chief marketing officer at NBC. “They want ‘Gossip Girl’ to work around them, they don’t want to work around ‘Gossip Girl.’”

Other networks are realizing differing degrees of success in attracting viewers in the 18-34 demo.

NBC’s “The Office” and ABC’s “Lost” do the best for those networks in the younger demographic, with good traffic in DVR views and visits to the networks’ streaming sites.

Fox’s Sunday animation block has consistently skewed young, with the 20-year-old series “The Simpsons” still one of the youngest-skewing shows on broadcast television. The block does well across the board.

“Animation is the only form of programming that can replenish the younger audience,” said Preston Beckman, Fox’s head of scheduling.

On the other end of the spectrum, CBS, which has fallen 24% in the 18-34 demo year-to-year, struggles to invite in younger viewers. CBS declined comment.

The Tiffany network is, however, bringing on several mixed martial arts specials for the summer, programming that appeals directly to males in the 18-34 demo.

Regardless of how The CW’s “Gossip Girl” ploy pans out, success in the 18-34 demographic is a distinct roll of the dice to try to lure a fickle and elusive demographic.

“It’s not an easy group to reach out to, but if you have a hit, you’re going to make a lot of money,” Mr. Adgate said.