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TV tackles the 'X-Y' factor

Network programmers take aim at attracting trendy teens

Sunday, May 02, 1999

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Make way for the Millennials.

They're why NBC might schedule a show in the fall called "Freaks and Geeks" about high school life or one titled "MYOB" about a 16-year-old trying to track down her biological mother. And why

    Ratings race:

The Top 10 prime-time TV shows this season among Millennials and Generation X viewers.

Viewers age 12-17:

1. "Family Guy" (Fox)
2. "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" (ABC)
3. "The Simpsons" (Fox)
4. "Boy Meets World" (ABC)
5. "Brother's Keeper" (ABC)
6. "That '70s Show" (Fox)
7. "Dawson's Creek" (The WB)
8. "Futurama" (Fox)
9. "Two of a Kind" (ABC)
10. "7th Heaven" (the WB)

Viewers age 18-34:

1. "Friends" (NBC)
2. "ER" (NBC)
3. "Jesse" (NBC)
4. "Frasier" (NBC)
5. "Veronica's Closet" (NBC)
6. "Family Guy" (Fox)
7. "The X-Files" (Fox)
8. "The Simpsons" (Fox)
9. "Party of Five" (Fox)
10. "Ally McBeal" (Fox)

Nielsen Media Research

More on GenX

'X' marks the generation that set the pace for 'Y


ABC may broadcast "Brookfield," set in a boarding school, and "Wasteland," a series written and produced by Kevin William-son, who gave the world "Scream" and "Dawson's Creek."

Never heard of either of those? Grab the nearest teen-ager and try not to seem too ancient and creaky when you ask.

The Millennials, or Generation Y as they're more commonly known, are the newest, most powerful group of TV viewers who are driving what turns up on the tube. They may not be behind the wheel, but they're reading the map (or navigational system) and piping up from the back seat.

Like an apple pie, the TV audience can be sliced up any number of ways.

Cut a wedge called Generation Y, and you get 60 million Americans 5 to 20 years old, the largest bulge since those ubiquitous baby boomers. In television, numbers are power (unless you're over a certain age, and then no one much wants you). The slightly older Generation X, meanwhile, clocks in at a mere 17 million. They generally are considered the 18- to 34-year-old crowd.

"The WB, in particular, does extraordinarily well with the young audience, and they have really made a living out of these serial dramas that appeal to 12 to 24s, particularly females," says Paul Schulman, whose Madison Avenue agency buys $240 million in network ad time a year.

"And ABC has quite a few shows that skew young, particularly their Friday night lineup, and they are probably going to be adding a Kevin Williamson show in the fall, a young skewing drama." That would be "Wasteland."

While the older audience is much more accessible -- they're available and they're heavy viewers -- teens can be both difficult to reach and somewhat fickle.

"WB found a way to get them. ABC, I believe, is on the road to doing the same thing, whereas NBC is looking for 18 to 49. CBS, the 25 to 54 audience," Schulman says. "Young males are going to be the target for UPN, and Fox gets a good young audience. They probably will spin off 'Party of Five' into a new series, and I wouldn't be surprised if they play it Monday at 8 p.m."

One difference with shows targeted at teens is the potential longevity.

"Shows don't really last 15 years with the teen audience. ... 'Law & Order' will have a very long run on network television. It has little or no appeal to teen-agers," says Schulman. Teen-age shows typically last about three or four years; then they're not a hot topic in the cafeteria anymore.

"Kids today, young females, absolutely love 'Dawson's Creek' and love 'Felicity' and love 'Buffy.' This is appointment viewing for them right now. Five years from now, it may not be. Felicity cannot stay at that New York university forever, and I don't know if grad school will really do it," says Schulman.

When you look at the Top 10 shows among Gen X viewers and the ratings winners among the core of Gen Y viewers age 12-17, only two names repeat -- "Simpsons" and "Family Guy," both animated shows on Fox.

"Yet it's the shows that score with Gen Y that generate all the buzz in Hollywood and among journalists," says Rob Owen, the Post-Gazette's TV editor who wrote a book called "Gen X TV: 'The Brady Bunch' to 'Melrose Place' " in 1997. Syracuse University Press has just published it in paperback.

"Dawson's Creek," for example, isn't even in the Top 25 of Gen X's most-watched programs this season, but it's No. 7 on Gen Y's list, Owen points out. "Dawson's" provided the platform that launched James Van Der Beek and Katie Holmes as movie stars. Everything "Dawson's" is so hot that, last week, Sony Music released a CD with songs heard on the TV show. It includes such tracks as "Kiss Me" by Sixpence None the Richer and "I Don't Want to Wait" by Paula Cole.

"Throughout the 1980s, prime-time TV catered to the baby boomers with shows like 'Family Ties' and 'thirtysomething.' That changed with the emergence of Fox, which was to Generation X what ABC had been to the boomers in the late '60s and early '70s," says Owen. ABC gave the world "Batman," "The Mod Squad" and "The Partridge Family."

Owen considers "Beverly Hills, 90210," which debuted in October 1990, the first true Gen X show.

"Only one set of kids had parents as regular cast members," says Owen, while "Friends" was the first series aimed at Gen Xers that broke the slacker stereotype, and it remains the most popular show with the age group today. It's also one of the most popular sitcoms with viewers of all ages, including the ones who can barely remember being Joey or Monica's age (or weight).

Television is a copycat medium, so it's no surprise that everyone is looking at what the WB does so well.

"I feel like some of the other networks are sort of reacting to us," says Kate Juergens, the WB's senior vice president of development, comedy and drama series. "When the WB was established, Jamie Kellner and Garth Ancier wanted to follow the Fox philosophy" of attracting viewers 18 to 34. "It wasn't like they set out to appeal to teens," but they quickly gravitated toward the programming.

"They are an incredibly lucrative group to market to, but I wouldn't say teens are driving our programming. Certainly the demographic 18 to 34 is what we're trying to appeal to," Juergens says, although the WB also targets viewers as young as 12, who enjoy watching slightly older characters on screen.

In what you could call "aspirational viewing," the under-16s like to imagine being old enough to drive. The over-16s like to watch life in college and post-high school. "You don't really need to program TGIF to appeal to teens," suggests Juergens. TGIF is the label ABC has given to its Friday night lineup of such shows as "Sabrina" and "Boy Meets World."

"They're always looking for things that are new, different, things that speak directly to them," Juergens says of teens. "They're pretty critical, so I think the intelligence and honesty of our programs are what got them, as opposed to some of the teen stuff other networks are chasing at the moment."

Asked to choose between a top-notch script aimed at Gen Y and an equally top-notch one aimed at Gen X, Juergens hedges by taking the middle ground. "We pull from both groups. Our goal is to be No. 1 in 18- to 34-year-old adults in five years, and I think we're pretty well positioned to do that."

Juergens, who joined the WB from NBC nine months ago, will introduce nine hour-long pilots and six half-hour pilots, some of which are closer to drama than comedy, on May 18.

Once all of the networks unveil their fall schedules, Schulman will keep a date with his VCR. To place commercials for the fall, he watches each and every TV pilot.

"I watched all 37 pilots last year, including some two-hour forms. Some of it is painful. ... I don't just look at the good ones. If I'm not buying them, I'll have the luxury of buying against them. I watch every frame of every pilot. I don't subject my clients to that. I'm dying to see David E. Kelley's new show, 'Snoops,' for ABC," which could be a standout.

As a recent story in The Hollywood Reporter indicated, the demand for teen and twentysomething actors has put them in the catbird seat when it comes to negotiations. They want more money -- $15,000 to $20,000 per episode -- and offers of jobs without the customary auditions.

As long as most advertisers are targeting adults 18 to 49, Gen X won't turn into a Lost Generation any time soon.

"Gen X hasn't been passed by, but it's just not as trendy as it was in the early '90s. Since there are so few of us, compared to the Boomers and Millennials, that trend is likely to continue," says Owen, an Xer himself.

"We're caught in the middle, and the Millennials are the hot commodity now."

Rob Owen will sign copies of "Gen X TV" at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Borders Books and Music on McKnight Road, Northway Mall.

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