Five years ago, the term "tween" was not part of the vocabulary for most network programming executives, who believed that the age group between toddlers and teenagers was far too elusive to be worth targeting.
But recently, the preteen audience — the echo of the baby boom generation — has grown into a viable and lucrative viewing segment. And cable programmers are now employing a variety of tactics to attract and reach them.
"For many years, this was an audience that nobody wanted to touch," said Midge Pierce, vice president of programming for Starz Encore Group LLC-owned WAM! America's Kidz Network. "I came out of broadcasting, where the discussions always centered around the belief that this age group was a moving target and you couldn't effectively reach them. But we find these kids are enormously loyal viewers."
Generally defined as children between 9 and 14, there are 27.5 million tweens in the U.S. And their enormous personal economic clout — and influence on parental purchases — has made both programmers and cable operators stand up and take notice.
Tweens spent an estimated $21 billion of their own money on consumer purchases last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Far more significant is the pull they exert over the $130 billion their parents spend annually. Consequently, an expanding group of advertisers are looking for programming vehicles to reach the growing demographic.
"You see automobile ads in Sports Illustrated for Kids. Obviously, an 11-year old is not going to go out and buy a minivan, but they probably will have a vote on which minivan the family buys," said Julie Halpin, founder and CEO of The Geppetto Group, a New York advertising agency that specializes in kids and teens.
"More and more marketers are starting to realize that they need to pay attention to the tween audience because they play such a role in family-purchasing decisions," she said.
A coterie of cable networks have made a greater effort to reach this target audience, using an array of original animated fare, reality shows and series programming.
Although channels like Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network have traditionally drawn large numbers of young viewers, they have only recently marshaled their resources to focus specifically on the narrow tween demographic.
Disney Channel tops the list of preferred basic-cable destinations for tweens during primetime, drawing an average rating of 3.5 (622,000 average viewers) among the 9-14 set in the third quarter (July 2 to Sept. 30), according to Nielsen Media Research.
Nickelodeon led in total-day during the third quarter with a 2.5 rating, or an average of 478,000 viewers. Cartoon Network ranked third in both dayparts.
Those trends continued during October. According to Nielsen data, Disney Channel averaged a 3.8 rating among kids 9-14 during primetime from Oct. 1 to Oct. 28, while Nick's 295,000 viewers was tops among that group in total day.
Disney's strength with the group stems in part from a concerted effort initiated about five years ago. That push has included such acquisitions as off-network series Growing Pains, as well as Disney's vast library of G- and PG-rated theatrical films. Afternoon tween fare includes live-action originals Even Stevens
and The Famous Jett Jackson, each of which features tween-aged lead characters.
Recently, Disney has added some original animated shows such as The Proud Family, featuring a 14-year old African-American girl as the central character, and Lizzie McGuire, a show that employs a clever mixture of live-action and animation. Each attempts to home in on tweens' relationships with friends and family.
"It's important to include the concept of family in each of our series," said Disney Channel general manager Rich Ross. "Kids at this age are trying to grow up, but they still desire very strong family ties."
ABC Family — known as Fox Family Channel prior to The Walt Disney Co.'s $5.2 billion purchase of Fox Family Worldwide Inc. — had also made inroads into the tweens category. Buoyed by the success of such tween-targeted programs as
S Club 7 In Hollywood
and So Little Time, the network posted solid ratings in the category.
During the third quarter, the network's tween full-day ratings grew 13 percent over last year's numbers, said network executives.
ABC Family's future efforts to target tweens were unclear at press time, though Disney has indicated that it will program the network, to a large extent, with repurposed shows from ABC, ESPN, Disney Channel and SoapNet. At the same time, it was not known whether ABC Family would retain the likes of S Club 7, or such popular programming and marketing programs as "13 Days of Halloween" or "25 Days of Christmas," which have broad appeal among children and adults alike.
Even traditionally adult-targeted services like Showtime and Home Box Office are building tween-targeted blocks of programming as part of their kid-targeted multiplex services. Launched in 1999 as part of the HBO multiplex service, HBO Family features G- and PG-rated films, and a handful of tween-targeted programs such as the game show Crashbox
and 30 by 30: Kid Flicks, according to the network.
WHAT DO TWEENS WATCH?
In order to build a successful tween franchise, programmers must first appreciate the age group's mindset.
Psychologist Langbourne Rust said programmers need to understand that there are "systematic" differences between the tastes and needs of tweens and other consumers.
For example, he said, tweens quite often say one thing and do another. Some years ago, Rust conducted a study for CBS on a magazine program the broadcast network was considering for its young audience.
Researchers showed an audience of tweens various TV scenes, then asked them to rank the scenarios. They responded in a manner similar to older teens and adults.
"But when I studied videotape of how they actually attended to those scenes, their scores showed them behaving very much like younger children," Rust said. "They were profoundly inconsistent: They thought like grownups, but behaved like little kids."
He concluded that a successful program needs to work on two levels, passing the "grownup censor" that resides in every tween, yet grabbing the child within them.
Showtimehas attempted to walk that fine line between adolescence and adulthood since 1995 under its "Showtime Original Pictures for Kids" banner.
The moniker for that series of telefilms — which addresses the audience aged 8 to 14 by tackling subject matter like racial issues, teenage pregnancy and violence — was later changed from "Kids" to "All Ages."
"The intention is to capture the attention of younger viewers without preaching, which would ultimately turn them off. In all of them, the child is the protagonist," said Showtime spokeswoman Joan Ziff.
Showtime also launched Showtime Familyzone earlier this year as part of its multiplex service. The channel will air only G-and PG-rated movies, along with some "carefully scheduled" PG-13 titles.
"Programmers who just talk to tweens don't get to observe their spontaneous reactions, so they are only in touch with the 'censor,' " Rust said. "Others just focus on box office and ratings figures, but if they ignore what tweens have to say, they will often get clobbered too."
NOT BIG ENOUGH TO GO SOLO
As programmers go about the business of trying to attract tweens in different ways, most engage in some type of block programming. But despite the segment's economic viability, no network has truly dedicated itself to solely reaching 9-to-14-year-olds.
Disney Channel, with its staple of movies and music, tends to attract older kids and teens.
For its part, Nickelodeon programs primarily for kids aged 6 to 11, but it's been successful in appealing to tweens via its variety of animation, live-action and comedic programming.
"It's an important audience, but I'm not sure it's a big enough audience to build an entire network around," said Nickelodeon executive vice president and general manager Cyma Zarghami.
Cartoon Network picks up a substantial tween audience — thanks largely to animation's universal appeal — but it seems that tweens are almost a programming afterthought.
"Because we don't target that audience, we don't think about it a whole lot," said senior vice president of programming Linda Simensky.
Unlike other cable programmers, who target a specific demographic audience, Cartoon Network simply provides shows for people who like cartoons.
"We don't come up with the audience first and then find some shows to get it," Simensky said. "We make shows that our viewers will enjoy. It's not a typical approach and it almost flies in the face of conventional wisdom."
Indeed, adults comprise fully one-third of Cartoon Network's daily audience.
WAM! comes closest in its aim at that narrow slice of the youth audience, as the premium service positions itself as a destination for tweens.
"It is the fastest-growing demographic in America," Pierce said. "People are beginning to recognize that this audience needs to be served.
"Our focus has always been 8-to-16 years-old, and our strategy has been consistent. We customize our programs for an under-served audience."
Along with new tween-targeted original series including Get Reel, The Buzz
and Fred TV, WAM! recently picked up an additional 52 episodes of The Tribe, a sci-fi program with kids as lead characters. Also returning: Caught in the Middle, a reality series filmed on location in a Seattle high school.
Cable operators also recognize the importance of the tween audience as effective word-of-mouth marketers for advanced digital products and services.
"They are frequently the ones who tell mom and dad they want digital cable or a high-speed modem," said Millennium Digital Media senior vice president of marketing and programming Peter Smith. "They are aggressive little consumers, and we need to prepare for them.
Added AT&T Broadband vice president of programming Peter Singer: "Tweens are trendsetters in a way that will be good for the cable operator. Eventually, with the arrival of interactive television, these may well be the people who teach our customers how to use it."
Many tweens have access to their own television set, and they spend a lot of time in front of it — an average of about 20 hours per week. But given their viewing habits, network executives believe tweens can be reached through programs targeted to other demographic groups.
Though Nick spends about $200 million a year to develop original shows, one of the top programs among tweens remains the venerable Rugrats, which targets elementary school-aged kids and adults.
"[Rugrats] has a huge tween audience," Zarghami said. "Now, with our introduction of Snick and TEENick, we have been able to give tweens 'permission' to stick with us longer."
The Saturday-evening "Snick" block tries to draw the younger end of the tween group, while Sunday night's "TEENick" — featuring such programs as Taina, Caitlin's Way
and As Told By Ginger
— attracts the older end.
The idea, says Zarghami, is to create a destination for tweens, while protecting the network's core audience.
"Tweens frequently have younger brothers and sisters, and they act as influencers and decisionmakers for the younger kids. We look to the older kids to help us bring the younger kids along."
Although Cartoon Network does not specifically target tweens, several of its programs have proven to be popular with them. DragonBall Z
anchors the channel's popular "Toonami" action-adventure block, weekdays, 5 p.m to 7 p.m. Recently, DragonBall Z
has surged in the Nielsens, with a number of episodes ranking among cable's top 50 and top 100 shows during October. Other tween favorites include Samurai Jack
and Dexter's Laboratory, Simensky said. The recently launched Justice League
is also expected to appeal to the group. Cartoon Network will invest up to $500 million to develop original animation programming over the next five years.
Music is also a vehicle to reach teens, as Disney, ABC Family and Nickelodeon incorporate music programming through music video blocks or through appearances by popular artists in original series and movies.
ABC Family's Front Row Center
concert series — which has helped the network increase its third-quarter ratings among tween girls by 8 percent (1.3 vs. 1.2) — and Nickelodeon's Sunday-night concert series and music videos bring the top tween-targeted artists to its core viewers.
"We want to have our finger on the pulse of our audience, and music is a valuable part of the mix," Zarghami said.
Disney has taken a different tack: It's placed popular artists and their music within its original series and movies. Unwilling to continue furnishing record labels with free promo*tion through music-video programs, Disney believes its new emphasis on tying music with original programming will continue to provide record labels with exposure for their talent while helping the network to maintain creative control.
"Music has been good for us, so we looked for a more even relationship with the artists," Ross said.