Luring the Elusive Tween

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When producer Tom Lynch created the popular series The Secret World of Alex Mack in 1994, he was among the first to explore the secret world of tweens.

“Tweens were lost at that time,” says Lynch. “The programming was either too young or too old. What Alex Mack brought in its star Larisa Oleynik was someone that was one of them, and [the show] had this heightened experience going on that made their lives an adventure.”

Lynch now produces Nickelodeon’s Romeo!, featuring hip hop star Lil’ Romeo, and the Discovery Kids’ series Scout’s Safari, starring a 14-year-old explorer. Lynch believes the whole process of programming for tweens is as much of an adventure as the worlds he explores in his shows. They may be a fun bunch to target, but they are a tough group to capture.

Most network executives agree. “It’s really a state of mind,” says Majorie Kaplan, executive vice president and general manager for Discovery Kids, which produces tween-centric adventure shows Darcy’s Wild Life and the reality competition series, Endurance.

“Tweens are more typically interested in reality than they are in fantasy,” she says. “While you still like cartoons, and you still like fantasy, the real world has become your world. You live in a social world: How do you get along with your friends? How do you do at school? What’s your relationship with your parents? And so tweens like to see that world reflected back to them.”

In fact, says Kaplan, it’s a demo she favors. “Tween is a really good word,” she muses. “They are between one thing and another, it’s a moment of change and it’s exciting to do programming for tweens. They have really great senses of humor. And if you’re an adult, they’re sort of like you, but not really; they remind you of your younger, better self.”

But tweens are anything but definitive. The younger ones are not quite full-fledged adolescents, and the older ones want to step back a bit from the razor’s edge of teenage life. They might be interested in watching MTV: Music Television, but are also willing to watch great narrative, family-style programming.

In fact, the major complication with tweens is simply figuring out a precise age bracket. According to Nielsen Media Research, the demo ranges from 9 to 14 years old. But depending on the network, or even the marketing group, tweens can fall anywhere from 6 to 12, 6 to 14, 8 to 12 and 8 to 14.

Such ambiguity is what led WAM! America’s Kidz Network to dump its tween tag altogether. The channel, which began in 1994 as the hub for dramas targeted to children and tweens, will relaunch this spring as a teen movie destination.

“Kids don’t respond very well to the moniker 'tweens,’” says WAM! vice president Midge Pierce. “That’s one of the reasons that we dropped it as a channel name 10 years ago. We did focus groups and found that kids didn’t like it. It’s a marketing term, and there was a lot of fuzziness in terms of a definition. That doesn’t mean that tweens aren’t getting movies and series that don’t appeal to them [on WAM!]. It just means that we are not using that as our positioning statement.”

Yet, Pierce contends, “It’s been really gratifying to see people recognize that this is not just a huge demographic, but a huge developmental stage in a child’s life that had not been earlier recognized. In terms of measuring that audience, I think you’ll find some of the basic-cable programmers have done extremely well with that demographic. But what hasn’t been done well is defining what that audience is.”

And still the programming grows. Disney Channel is bolstering its tween lineup with new live-action shows, including mainstays That’s So Raven and Lizzie McGuire. It also has several original movies featuring tween talent, as well as an upcoming film for its popular animated tween spy adventure, Kim Possible.

“Those movies capture a wide audience for us,” says Scott Garner, vice president of programming, planning and scheduling for Disney Channel. “But they’re most certainly very popular with kids 6 to 14 and also 9 to 14, the tween set. So there’s a pretty strong bevy of programming for this age group. I guess we’ve somewhat broadened the scope, but at the end of the day, for us, it’s being the best friend to that 9- to 11-year-old kid — whether it’s aspiration to younger kids or right on with what the older kids are going through.”

Nickelodeon is also aggressively programming for tweens with series such as The Brothers Garcia, All That, The Amanda Show and The Nick Cannon Show, while sister network The N is going after the tween and teen audiences with shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation and Radio Free Roscoe.

In February, The N will debut its first miniseries, Miracle Boys, a Harlem-based drama about three orphaned boys that’s directed by filmmakers Spike Lee, LeVar Burton and Ernest Dickerson.

“More competition is really good for us in this genre,” says Tom Ascheim, executive vice president and general manager for Nickelodeon Digital Television. “It really pushes the premium on originality and makes you want to come up with stuff that stands out, that delivers something genuinely new, intriguing and terrific. Years ago we could coast. Now, we cannot.”

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