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Networks drill deeper into teen market

Mar 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Teens rule. They not only spend $114 billion of their own money each year, but also-as any parent knows-they wield considerable influence over the spending habits of others.
That’s why the race is on to develop programming that turns teens into loyal viewers. Every network from PBS to The WB believes developing appealing programming for teens is a smart move. And they know that signing up teen viewers gives them a good shot at keeping those viewers as they grow older.
“The younger you can get your message to people, the longer they will consider you the brand of choice,” said Brad Turell, executive vice president of network communications for The WB. “If you get them at 17, you’ll have them for the rest of their lives.” The WB prides itself on being No. 1 for the last four years among girls 12 to 17 with shows like “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and “Popstars.” The WB’s “7th Heaven” is No. 1 among teens 12 to 17 overall.
Mr. Turell says empowering girls and women has been a key to the network’s success, and for that he thanks The WB’s President Suzanne Daniels, who first introduced “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” After the show proved successful, The WB began to emphasize other programming that features empowered women.
NBC is competing for teen dominance with a different tack: family-friendly programming. Lee Gaither, vice president, NBC Saturday morning and family programs, says he has three hours a week to win over 12- to-17-year-olds.
In what it hopes is a winning tactic, NBC has carved out what it believes is a unique, underserved teen niche.
“We’re targeting positive, family-oriented kids who so often we forget live out there,” Mr. Gaither said. “They may initially be excited by what they see on The WB, but it’s too racy for them. We’re building programs that on the surface look like they could be on The WB but at their core are safe.”
Devising suitable programming is no easy task, he said. Generation Y, unlike previous generations, has grown up watching cable and makes no distinction between it and network television. Just being NBC doesn’t cut any ice, Mr. Gaither said. “It’s all just programming, and we’re all equal.”
No network has had much success among teens with the types of conventional comedies that dominate prime time. And anything that smacks of phoniness or that kids perceive as patronizing is an immediate loser. It also doesn’t do much good, Mr. Gaither believes, to piggyback off other people’s success, as happens frequently in prime time. “Once teens have taken ownership of a property, they don’t want to see the same thing someplace else. For instance, you can’t succeed by trying to do music better than MTV.”
Public television is also taking a crack at teen programming with a wholesome look at high school. In April, PBS will begin offering “American High,” a show with a documentary flavor that originally appeared on Fox. PBS will show not only the four shows that aired previously but also some that didn’t appear, and it is working with creator R.J. Cutler to produce some new shows and some revised packaging.
John Wilson, senior vice president, programming services, said one of the things PBS likes about “American High” is that it will appeal to both teens and their parents-thus bringing a much younger demographic to the network. The median age of a PBS viewer is 56.4 years, while the parents of teens are often in their 40s. If teens and their parents sit down and watch this realistic portrayal of life in high school, Mr. Wilson said, it could be a real audience-builder for public television.
His toughest challenge is figuring out how to promote the show, since in-house promotion probably won’t work. Instead PBS is partnering with major teen Web sites and is launching an e-mail campaign that depends on viral marketing. There will be a substantial amount of radio advertising, and PBS also will be distributing T-shirts at locations where kids will be on spring break. “It’s a completely new approach for us,” Mr. Wilson said.
PBS has deliberately scheduled “American High” at 10 p.m. Wednesdays to draft behind the strong schedules of Fox Family and The WB. “Since they are effectively done at 10 p.m., this audience is cut loose. We’re going to give them a place to go,” Mr. Wilson said.
Since frequency of viewership is low among teens, every new episode of “American High” will be preceded in the first half-hour by the show from the previous week. PBS intends to repeat the entire series during the summer. “We think this will build an audience for us that we really need to cultivate.”
Meanwhile, Nickelodeon is moving cautiously into new territory: “tween” programming for kids 9 to 14. Cyma Zarghami, executive vice president and general manager of Nickelodeon, has launched a block of programming on Sunday nights called TEENick. Ms. Zarghami believes this young teen audience has previously been ignored. “I think it is important not to call them either kids or teens, but to acknowledge that there is a real demographic in between that is emerging as an important market,” she said.