Boomers are old news. Generation X: history. Generation Y has been done. For some basic-cable networks, the hot demographic is now "tweens"-the volatile cohort between 9 and 14 years old.
Their influence is felt throughout the retail spectrum. Look at your local department store: those grape- and lime- colored phones aren't exactly for Wall Street bankers. And Britney Spears and 'N Sync wouldn't have major tours and a McDonald's endorsement deal had preteens not been grabbing up their albums.
Tweens' buying power makes them more attractive than ever to advertisers, who are interested in parking their ad dollars at those networks that can reach them.
Malcolm in the Middle
, last television season's breakout broadcast hit. The star, Frankie Muniz, is smack in the middle of the tween age group, and is attracting an audience of his peers. Those ratings numbers attract ad buyers, too.
Basic-cable networks also believe they have honed their tween formulas. The cable industry's kid-focused networks-Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Fox Family Channel-are each claiming victory in the war to capture the hearts of that audience.
TOUGH TO DEFINE
And they're boasting their success despite the difficulty in even defining a "tween." Many programming executives said tweens are more of a "psychographic" than a demographic.
"There are 6-year-old girls that are tweens. There are 16-year-old boys that are tweens. Everyone gets there at a different time," said Rich Ross, Disney Channel's general manager.
Cyma Zarghami, Nick's executive vice president and general manager, agreed. "They have been difficult to target. An 11-year-old girl may be physically and emotionally different from the East Coast to the West Coast."
The age group is so important to Disney that the channel recently launched a $10 million ad campaign to encourage older kids to watch the channel.
Interest in the demo, according to researchers, can be attributed to America's changing lifestyles. With the increase of two-income homes, adolescents in the tween age group are called upon to be more independent and an earlier age.
They are learning earlier to make their own decisions on spending a greater share of the family's income, according to the 2000
Report, released by Roper Starch Worldwide just this fall. The report was generated from 1,200 face-to-face interviews with kids and tweens.
The report found that kids aged 8 to 12 have $10 to spend each week, a jump from the $8 reported in 1997. Those in the 13-to-17 group have $32.20 in discretionary income, an increase of $10.60 from three years ago.
Multiplied by the demographic, that gives tweens an estimated $50 billion a year in buying power. They also strongly influence the billions more spent for general family purposes, helping to decide what videocassettes to rent or where to vacation.
Though tweens are buying more, they may be watching a little less TV, according to the Roper report, making marketing to this group even more important. The
noted that 22 percent of kids 8 to 12 and 24 percent of 9- to 17-year-olds surveyed said they feel their lives are overbooked with sports and other after-school activities.
When they do watch TV, their favorite cable networks, according to the poll, are Nick, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Fox Family, said Carolyn Setlow, group senior vice president of Roper Starch Worldwide.
Tweens are so important to the growth of Disney that the network does weekly research in "every method you can imagine," Ross said, including focus groups, telephone coincidentals and mall intercepts.
"Kids want real information on how to handle their lives, not just 'You're in puberty,'" he said. "We listen to that audience very closely.it inspires everything we do now."
Disney has been pursuing tweens for four years. "We had to train people to believe in the segment," Ross said.
The channel has packed its tween-targeted content into a slot that stretches from mid-afternoon Friday "when that closing school bell rings" through Sunday. The target demographic is busy with school, sports and family activities during the week, according to research.
Adolescents have been drawn to the network by series that deal with teen interaction and maturation, such as
Bug Juice. The network also has had great success with original movies targeted to the group.
Miracle in Lane Two,
Malcolm in the Middle's Frankie Muniz, was the top-rated movie among tweens last May, according to the network. The channel now does 12 original movies for that age bracket each year.
Disney Channel cites research declaring it No. 1 among tweens in primetime for the first half of this year. The network, which is now in more than 66 million homes, has seen its ratings among tweens increase more than 21 percent in that daypart, compared to a year ago.
But Nick, the kids' powerhouse, has its own set of figures. Statistics show it is No. 1 with tween boys and girls on a 24-hour basis. It has a 1.85 coverage rating among tweens, a category nearly double that of Disney Channel, Nick executives said.
Zarghami estimated that tweens make up 15 to 20 percent of Nick's audience. The network's attention to adolescents began in 1991, with the introduction of the "Snick" block. At that time, "Snick" included
The Ren & Stimpy Show,
Clarissa Explains It All
Roadhouse, a dance show.
Then-popular kid stars such as Kenan and Kel are still with the network, in recognition of teens' "aspirational viewing" trends. Tweens want to see performers in all age ranges-such as older teens like Keenan, now 17, and Kel, now 18-in their programming.
Nick been successful with shows such as
a series that features a 15-year-old urban kid sent to live with relatives in Montana. Executives said such shows differ from teen-targeted broadcast like
Party of Five
in that the characters are involved in milder, more "age-appropriate" situations.
The premiere of
was the highest-rated series debut in Nick's history. Another popular recent launch is
The Brothers Garcia,
which features life of a San Antonio family as seen through the eyes of its youngest son.
The network will soon debut three more tween-centric series:
Taina, the story of a 14-year-old Latina juggling her traditional home life and her educational career at the Manhattan School for the Arts. She shares her problems and her dreams through music video vignettes.
Noah Knows Best, a kind of
Malcolm in the Middle
meets the Big Apple. The live-action comedy follows a young New Yorker and his sister, Megan, through their sibling rivalries and teen challenges. He shares his inner thoughts by breaking the fourth wall and talking directly into the camera.
As Told By Ginger, an animated series from Klasky-Csupo, the creator of
and other Nickelodeon staples. It's about a former misfit slipping between the worlds of childhood geekdom and "the cool group."
Some of these shows are "multi-tasking" by speaking to tweens and ethnic audiences.
"In order to stay in the lead, we need to reflect real life, real issues," Zarghami said. "The U.S. population is changing. Kids have a more culturally rich environment. If we don't reflect that, we lose our relevance."
To capitalize on the popularity of Britney Spears and the boy bands, Nick is incorporating more music into its programming. A popular feature is Spears, 'N
in which viewers pick their favorites from a selection of videos. The winners are aired later in the day. Videos from Spears, 'N Sync and Aaron Carter have attracted 250,000 votes each day from Nick's viewers.
FAMILY PLAYS CATCHUP
Fox Family, which was rebranded two years ago, has some catching up to do, as Nick and Disney have been burrowing into this niche for 20 years.
Viewership studies say the public views programming that carries the Fox name as "cooler" and "edgier," said Joel Andryc, executive vice president of programming and development. Fox Family aims to develop programming that meets those expectations.
The first post-rebranding schedule was a bit overambitious, Andryc said. The network scheduled interstitials with video jockeys guiding viewers through the TV day, but the programs skewed younger than the jocks.
"The interstitials were good for us, but it proved to be a disconnect (for viewers)," he said. "But we're making real progress now, especially with 9-to-14 year-old girls."
Fox Family's recent data show its ratings for the season-to-date, for girls 9 to 14, is up 155 percent over last year (1.4 vs. 0.55 last year). That number bests Disney, which captures a 0.7 rating in that subdemographic. Fox Family's rating for kids 9 to 14 is also up 125 percent (0.9 vs. 0.6 then).
A good degree of the success is pegged to music-related programming, such as
S Club 7.
S Club 7
is a U.K. pop group-four girls and three guys-that landed in Florida in hopes of launching a music career. Instead, they wound up working as waitresses and bus boys.
The show was so popular with teens, that a soundtrack album-released without marketing support from label Interscope Records-sold 250,000 copies, according to the network.
S Club 7
later "moved" to Los Angeles and its characters adopted endangered animals. And, based on the success of the last album, another disc is set to hit stores in October, this time with marketing support.
The series will continue to change in 2001, when the band will move again, this time to an Eastern city, Andryc said.
Also popular is
Pretenders, a lip-synch show hosted by the girl group
Wild Orchid. Participants selected for this show tend to be older tweens, so aspirational younger viewers can watch it and learn how to dance and "dress cool," as their parents did by watching
Networks try to stretch their brand and marketing dollars through partnerships with other retailers or media, but those pairings don't always work. A Fox Family cross promotion, the video show
MXG Beach Countdown, is co-branded with the extreme sports magazine. But Andryc said the magazine is going out of business, so the search for a new partner is underway.
Two fall debuts will tap into the popularity of
The Blair Witch Project
and of broadcast soap operas. Viewers of
Real Scary Stories
will be able to contact the network and relate tales of paranormal activity in their hometowns, which will be retold on the show in a cinematic style reminiscent of the film. The soap opera
Edgemont, a co-production with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., will focus on high-school life and topics like dating, peer pressure and budding sexuality. An advisory board will help keep the plot lines guided toward a positive moral tone, Andryc said.
The cable network also benefits from programming swaps from its broadcast sibling. Popular Fox broadcast network specials like
Britney Spears in Hawaii
are reprised on Fox Family.
But as hard as the networks are working to attract tweens, executives said they are ready to let them go at 15.
"It's like mining fool's gold to try to cling to them," Ross said.
Zarghami quipped: "We pass them off to MTV, then once they start families, we hope they come back to us at Nick at Nite."