Blame it on the hormones or just on that time of life, but teenagers have always been an enigmatic lot. As their emotions range and roil, social activities and peer pressure become increasingly important. Other kids try to hang onto the last vestiges of childhood, holding off on making that full and fateful jump into adult life.
Trying to get teens to focus their attention on the tube during this turbulent time is no easy task for programmers. Indeed, teenagers watch for an average of only 2.5 hours per day — the least TV viewing of any age group.
"Teens are very complicated people. They want their independence, but many still have strong ties to their families," said MTV: Music Television executive vice president of research and planning Betsy Frank. "They want to be left alone, yet be connected to a community."
They also like to spend money. According to Teen Research Unlimited, kids aged 12 to 19 spent around $155 billion in 2001. And census data estimates that this group will grow to 35 million by 2010.
Those numbers are not lost on media executives.
NBC's decision to punt on its teen-skewing Saturday morning block aside, Frank said more advertisers and cable and broadcast networks are going after this business.
Leading the way into the teen world are such cable networks as Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, ABC Family and Black Entertainment Television (with its series 106th and Park), while Fox, The WB and UPN take up the slack on the broadcast side.
Then there's MTV. Whereas teens comprise just 7 percent of the viewers on cable and broadcast overall, they made up 29.9 percent of MTV's audience during January.
All told, basic cable's average primetime delivery for the 12-to-17 crowd — the teen demo as defined by Nielsen Media Research — grew 9.9 percent, to an average of 2.47 million viewers in 2001 from 2.24 million in 2000, according to a Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau analysis of Nielsen data.
TEENS AND TECH
Meanwhile, technology has changed teen behavior, including how they watch TV — but not how much TV they view.
"Teens are spending more time with the computer, but they are watching as much TV as ever," said Frank. "They are extensively involved with chat rooms and instant messaging.
"MTV 360 ties into multitasking and the use of multiple screens," noted Frank, referring to the cross-platform convergence strategy that links MTV, MTV2 and MTV.com.
"TV alone is not holding teens' attention like it used to," added MuchMusic USA president Marc Juris. "They're using computers and instant messaging.
"We've created a platform that connects with that community and lets viewers program their televisions. The audience picks the videos and viewers can upload themselves on TV."
For example, MuchMusic's Oven Fresh
allows viewers who visit the channel's Web site to continue or end a new video's run on the show, while their online peers vote to keep the resident Tastemaker on—or boot them off.
On Feb. 14, MuchMusic, currently in some 17 million homes, bowed Dedicate Live!
The show allows viewers to send messages — good or bad —to accompany video selections.
"This is a viewer-controlled service," said Juris. "A lot of networks talk about being in tune with teens, but we let teens and other viewers talk to us."
Although he wouldn't be specific, he said MuchMusic overindexes "incredibly" against teens, when compared with other networks.
The continuing proliferation of technology is something that's playing well for Techtv with teens, too.
"There is a proclivity for the subject among teens, those 12 to 18, 12 to 20, the college crowd. It is the tech generation," said senior vice president of programming Greg Drebin. "They never grew up without technology. It started for many of them with video games."
But unlike MTV — which tends to lose viewers as their passion for music wanes with age —staying abreast of technology is a lifelong quest, Drebin said.
"We believe that for people who grow up with the channel, Techtv is a natural part of their TV-selection set."
Drebin estimates that 25 percent to 30 percent of the channel's viewers are aged 12 to 17. The service, currently in some 30 million homes, will begin being measured by Nielsen in April.
In the meantime, Drebin cited The Screen Savers, Call For Help
and Fresh Gear— which he described as variety shows —as programs with teen appeal.
Conversely, AudioFile, a weekly half-hour show that explores how music, technology and artists connect in the digital age, and Extended Play, a weekly video game review/preview forum, both speak directly to topics that intrigue teens.
"These shows are specific to their lifestyles," said Drebin.
That's what Comcast Corp. is counting on as it prepares for the April launch of G4, a new video-game network that will debut on its systems, as well as some from Insight Communications Co.
"Our target demo is 12 to 34, but we expect that males and females 12 to 17 will play a big role," said G4 founder and CEO Charles Hirschhorn. "We feel there is a real opportunity with people who like to follow these games; it is a real important part of the entertainment world."
Last year was huge for a video-game industry bolstered by the introduction of new consoles. For the first time, video games outpointed the $8.4 billion generated at the U.S. box office.
"We're encouraged by number of people playing, the number of teens playing, the increasing number of women playing and the amount of time they are playing," said Hirschhorn.
But won't they be playing and not watching? "We've done a lot of research that indicated 85 to 97 percent of gamers said they are interested in watching a network about video games," he said.
People who like golf or like to cook still do those things and want to learn more about them, so they tune to The Golf Channel and the Food Network.
"We're going to feed the passion of gamers."
RIDING ACTION SPORTS
Games of another kind have gained traction — in terms of participation and viewership — with teen viewers on ESPN. In that vein, the sports network's X Games franchise holds multiple value for the network in terms of reaching teens.
"First, it's a different viewing segment than ESPN's audience overall, and broadens [its] advertising base," said Ron Semiao, ESPN's vice president of programming and the managing director of the Global X Games. "Second, X Games enthusiasts are the networks' audience of tomorrow."
ESPN is typical in terms of teen viewers: The 12-to-17 set represents about 7 percent of its overall audience, said research vice president Artie Bulgrin. X Games and action sports change all that: 12-to-17-year-olds make up 16 percent of Winter X Games watchers and 20 percent of its summer viewers.
Shifted from June to August, when there were more available viewers, the summer 2001 X Games grew by 44 percent in primetime, to a 1.3 average.
The event registered a 48 percent gain in household delivery, to 466,000 viewers on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2.
The 2002 Winter X Games reached its highest viewershiip levels among people 12 to 24 and males 12 to 24. Highlights included a best-ever 1.04 household rating for ESPN's coverage on Feb. 3, and a 2.67 rating Feb. 2 on ABC among males 12 to 17, the highest with that demo for any X Games telecast.
Currently, ESPN2 also runs two one-hour action sports blocks on weekdays at 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.
"We're in the very early stages. We'll see how this develops." Semiao said.
For its part, Fox Sports Net has made a scheduling commitment to younger viewers from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays — and reaped a 25-percent ratings gain in the daypart during 2001, according to Nielsen data.
Included in this grouping are two shows: Bluetorch, focused on skateboarding, BMX biking and the extreme-sports lifestyle; and You Gotta See This, which provides sports news and entertainment with high teen appeal.
"We have found that a teen audience is available in the late afternoon," senior vice president of programming Dan Harrison said. "Action sports play to [the] Fox Sports attitude of fun and being edgy. They resonate with younger viewers."
By contrast, Harrison said, teens account for about 10 percent of the audience during FSN's primetime live-event coverage from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. National Basketball Association and National Hockey League games attract the younger viewers, as opposed to the older-skewing Major League Baseball telecasts.
KIDS NETS COUNT
The late weekday afternoon daypart is also key in Cartoon Network's teen efforts. The network's "Toonami" franchise (5 p.m. to 7 p.m.) highlights Japanese anime.
Teens 12 to 17 comprised 21 percent of its audience in 2001, more than double the network's total-day teen composition of 9 percent.
The block, headed by Dragon Ball Z, averaged a 2.1 rating among teens last year, up 31 percent from the same time period in 2000.
Teenage boys, which make up 17 percent of Toonami's overall audience, averaged a 3.2 rating in 2001, for an uptick of 39 percent.
Although Cartoon does not program against teens per se, network vice president of programming Dea Perez said the network is cognizant that this type of programming attracts older viewers. "Anime programming has a much broader appeal than many of our shows. It's more sophisticated by nature," she said. "It's rooted in myths and legends."
Nickelodeon continues to keep kids as they grow into their early teens. Claiming to be the No. 1 network among "tweens" ages 9 to 14 on a total-day basis, Nick said 73 percent of its 12-to-17 audience comes from the 12-to-14 subset.
Among the 12-to-14 demo, Nick averaged a 1.6 rating in 2001, up 10 percent over 2000.
Nielsen data shows that SpongeBob SquarePants—Nick's highest-rated show among kids 2 to 11 — is also its biggest draw with the 12-to-17 set.
and As Told by Ginger, part of the network's "TEENick" block on Sunday nights from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., rank second and third among teen viewers.
The block, which launches its second season on March 3, also includes Kenan and Kel, 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd
and The Brothers Garcia.
GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS
Although its primary audience is tweens 9 to 14, Disney Channel also ranked first during fourth-quarter 2001 among teens 12 to 17 (a 1.9 rating), girls 12 to 17 (2.3), teens 15 to 17 (tied with MTV and TBS Superstation at 1.1) and girls 15 to 17 (1.3).
Disney Channel also tied Cartoon with a 0.9 for the top spot in total-day among teens 12 to 17 and led among girls aged 12 to 17 (1.1). Among the latter group, Disney Channel said that it had all but one of the top 25 highest-rated programs on basic cable.
Against teens 12 to 17, the net's programs accounted for 20 out of the top 25 listings, including "Zoog Disney" afternoon programming block skeins The Proud Family, Lizzie McGuire
and Even Stevens.
"We're doing well with 12-to-14-year-olds, but girls 15 to 17 are absolutely coming along for the journey," Disney Channel president of entertainment Rich Ross said.
Ross described Disney Channel as relevant to kids' issues.
"Our programming touches on relationships, parents, school and peer pressure. If we're provider a decoder ring of sorts to help them understand things. If the kids watching are over 14, that's fine too."
Ross cited the recent film Double Teamed, which centers on basketball-playing twin sisters. Based on a true story, the film delves into such issues as sibling rivalry, jealous teammates, friendship, absentee parenthood and pressure from a dad who's pushing for his kids to gain college scholarships.
"We don't try to preach," said Ross. "We present these situations and let the kids make their own assessments."
For older kids, Disney Channel represents the simpler, easier times in their lives. "For 16-year-olds, age 11 is a safe haven. The complexities of their lives are far different. At that point, they're beginning to face all the issues of growing up."
Ross said Disney won't fully go there. "We don't want to go older. MTV has to. There are a lot more content concerns with the older kids. The texture of issues for Lizzie McGuire
at 14 are a lot different than for Lizzie McGuire at 17."
Disney Channel's sister service, ABC Family, has also quickly become a hit with the teen crowd.
Network executives said ABC Family was the fastest-growing ad-supported cable network among teens in fourth-quarter daytime, posting a 25-percent gain to a 0.5 rating from 3 to 6 p.m. It was also ahead 17 percent to a 0.7 rating among girls 12 to 17, versus the prior-year period.
The network was even stronger in January, with ratings doubling to 0.6 and a 1.0 among teens overall and teen girls, respectively.
ABC Family's appeal for teens began during its days as Fox Family Channel. Disney purchased the channel from Fox Family Worldwide last year.
The network now known as ABC Family started off pursuing teens during the afternoon.
"There really aren't that many networks serving this group," said ABC Family president Maureen Smith. "[Executive vice president of daytime] Joel Andryc identified opportunities weekdays in the 3 to 6 p.m. time period, which has become a destination for teens."
Among the network's more popular shows with teens: So Little Time, a live-action series with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen; the animated Braceface, featuring the voice of Alicia Silverstone; and the animated Totally Spies
Looking ahead, Smith envisioned cross-promotional opportunities with Disney Channel that will help push some of the older tween viewers to ABC Family.
Smith also talked of corporate musical synergies, in the form of concerts at Disney theme parks. "You can make shows that appeal to teens with content that is appropriate. It doesn't have to be sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Well, maybe not the rock 'n' roll," she laughed.
Indeed, Smith credits S Club 7—a live-action series starring the British pop group—and the "occasional concert" with generating buzz for the channel.
"It's tough to keep teens because they're always move on to the next thing," she said. "Music keeps their interest."
Said Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau president Joe Ostrow: "Music is a great way to reach teens, and we're not just talking about MTV, there are other services. Some of the shows on Nick are still drawing the younger teenagers, and there are shows with a youth flavor on networks like Comedy Central."
But perhaps not as much as some on Madison Avenue may think: Teens account for only 14 percent of Comedy Central's total-day audience.
Although the size of group was much larger a few years back, when South Park
was the cynosure of the cable-TV world, teens make up just 15 percent of the show's audience — a ratio shared by Battlebots.
"Our core demo is adults 18 to 49," said a spokesman. "We're not developing shows to teens. It's not worth our investment."
TNN: The National Network is another network reluctant to tout its teen take, even though it airs cable's highest-rated programming—the youthful-skewing World Wrestling Federation — on Monday nights.
A network spokesman repeatedly emphasized the strides the service is making against its adult 18 to 49 audience, noting that 56 percent of its viewers fall into the bracket.
"We're an adult-driven service. Even with the WWF, only 16 percent of the audience are 12 to 17," she said.
With ratios like that, demo-targeting strategies typical for cable don't necessarily apply to teens, as cable doesn't necessarily apply to teens.
"There are fairly good concentrations of teens on programs on The WB, UPN and Fox in primetime, and you do hit a fair amount of teens on MTV throughout the day," BBDO senior vice president of national broadcast buying Chris Geraci said. "But I'd say there aren't more than a half-dozen programs elsewhere on cable that hit that audience in significant numbers."
Even MTV has looked beyond the teen demo. "For most of the day, our original programming is aimed at the 18-to-24 group," said Frank. "They have always been the sweet spot of our audience.
"During recent years, there has been more teen-oriented popular music from Britney Spears, 'N' Sync and the like. But that music is now declining in popularity. There will more exposure to different audiences and a greater channel focus toward the 18-to-24 and the 18-to-34 segments."
To illustrate the vast difference in tastes between the two demos, the top five shows among teens on MTV during January —Making the Video, Total Request Live, Becoming, Who Knows The Band
and Direct Effect— coincide only once with the leaders among adults 18 to 34: Real World XI, Diary, True Life, Direct Effect
All of which again underscores a basic tenet of teen-agers, with respect to TV and in general: They're difficult to understand and hard to reach.