Down with the kids
While some say young people are no longer watching TV, the global success of series like Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars has turned that theory on its head. DQ explores how series are driving youth audiences back to the box.
Attracting elusive youth audiences has always been high on the TV industry’s to-do list. But as more and more youngsters turn their backs on traditional forms of viewing, the debate around how to win their attention has intensified.
Indeed, you very quickly get a sense of how serious the issue has become when you realise that Channel 4 in the UK – long regarded as a radical, alternative network – has an average viewer age of 55. In the US, The CW, AMC and FX all average 40-plus, despite being home to cross-generational favourites like The Flash, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story respectively.
From the perspective of scripted content, the first obvious question is whether TV drama can play a role in pulling young audiences back in the direction of traditional viewing platforms.
George Ormond, co-founder of indie producer The Forge and executive producer of C4’s school-set drama Ackley Bridge, believes so: “With Ackley Bridge, we set out to make a show that would attract a broad, multigenerational audience but would also bring the younger audience that is so hard to attract to linear TV.
“We did well on both counts. The show has lots of young fans that connected with it, but also the broader audience.”
Ackley Bridge is set in a multicultural school in Yorkshire, explains Ormond: “This felt like a great world to set a show in; contemporary, muscular, and unexplored on television. We wanted to make a show that would smack you between the eyes with surprising, untold stories that feel very modern.”
Key to ensuring younger audiences bought into the show was getting the right tone of voice, he adds. “We knew the show needed to offer something original: a strong premise and surprising, engaging and addictive stories that are outrageous and contemporary but unpatronising. It is sometimes provocative, always irreverent, never worthy. And it has heart.”
Another show that attempts to appeal to the youth demo as part of a broader audience is You Me Her, a romantic comedy that debuted on AT&T’s Audience Network in 2016 and has been renewed for a third season. In this case, the story revolves around Jack and Emma, a married, 30-something couple whose love for each other is being undermined by their fading sex life. To reinvigorate their relationship, they hire Izzy, a 25-year-old college student and part-time escort. The three develop romantic feelings for each other – creating the unfamiliar (for TV) dynamic of a polyamorous relationship.
Creator John Scott Shepherd says the life-stage difference between the older couple and Izzy gives the show “an interesting, schizophrenic feel,” adding: “It allows us to explore issues around relationship choices but also to see the world from Izzy’s younger perspective. She lives downtown and shares an apartment with her friend Nina. So the show is recognisable as a romcom but also appeals to a younger, progressive audience because it deals with sexuality and romance in a fluid way.”
You Me Her, which airs on Netflix outside the US, has built up a strong following on social media – which Shepherd believes is to do with the show’s authentic tone. “It fits with the younger generation’s belief that you should follow your bliss. It’s OK to live how you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone.”
While Ackley Bridge and You Me Her are examples of shows that are bringing down the average age of cross-demographic networks, many broadcasters choose to position youth dramas on channels specifically targeted at a younger audience. The classic example of this is Skins, an exuberant drama that ran for seven seasons from 2007 to 2013 on C4’s youth channel E4. But a more recent example is Clique, commissioned for the BBC’s online youth channel BBC3 and made by Skins producer Balloon Entertainment.
Balloon head of development Dave Evans says show creator Jess Brittain “wanted to write a show about female friendships and how they survive – or don’t survive – through major transitions. University can be an exhilarating time for change but it can also be a hard place to survive, to learn what you want to do.”
The show is a thriller, which is unusual, says Evans, because “university-set drama tends to sit in a comedic space – such Fresh Meat or Dear White People. But with Clique we wanted to hit the heart of the experience with more dramatic firepower.”
In terms of how you grab this audience’s attention, Evans says: “It’s about getting onto young people’s radar. Attention-grabbing scenes are useful in that if people are saying, ‘Oh wow did you see that bit when…’ or making animated GIFs, it’s more likely to hook in new viewers. That said, a young audience won’t stay unless the drama grabs them outside of all the flash and bang.”
Ironically, there are occasions when youth drama can have an ‘ageing up’ impact. German kids’ channel KIKA, for example, recently commissioned Five2Twelve (pictured top) as a way of appealing to a slightly older audience. Speaking to DQ, producer Marcus Roth says the show “plays in the 20.00 slot and deals with more mature editorial themes.”
Five2Twelve centres on five teenage boys who have all been in trouble with the police. “The courts give them one last chance to escape detention by sending them to a boot camp in the Bavarian Alps,” says director Niklas Weise. “Here they have to cope with the challenges of everyday life and learn how to get on with each other. Although most kids haven’t been on the wrong side of the law, they will recognise the issues.”
Like their counterparts, Weise and Roth say the biggest challenge is getting the language right – but that this also requires a supportive broadcaster. “The youth audience is quick to see anything fake or artificial, so you need to talk to them in a way that is authentic,” Weise adds. “But this also requires a broadcaster that is willing to support the vision you have for the project.”
While the success or failure of a youth drama generally comes down to the relatability of the story and characters, it also helps if the producer or broadcaster can give the audience a sense of ownership over the production. In the case of hit Nordic youth series Skam (Shame), for example, originating broadcaster NRK launched the show via its website, a move that helped the show build up a strong online community.
Here, the focus of the story was high-school students attempting to deal with classic teen issues. The first season, which premiered in September 2015, focused on relationship difficulties, loneliness, identity and belonging. Subsequent series have addressed feminism, eating disorders, sexual assault, homosexuality, mental health and cyberbullying.
All of this was supported by fresh digital content that was published on the NRK website each day to maintain a connection with the audience. Other social media-savvy shows include Freeform’s cult youth drama Pretty Little Liars, as well as the aforementioned Ackley Bridge. “We did a big push on Snapchat,” says Ormond, “and ran a parallel, specially shot Snapchat strand that involved Snaps being released from characters at key points throughout each episode, as well as between episodes and in ad breaks.”
This raises another key question: how can digital media be harnessed in other ways? Komixx Entertainment has sought out youth source material in the digital realm. “With the explosion of digital platforms and social media, some social influencers now hold arguably more power than traditional celebrities,” says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, Komixx group chief creative officer and head of film and TV. “This is relevant for young-adult adaptations, as [viewers of these shows] are digital natives, having grown up with social media networks.”
This led Komixx to back The Kissing Booth, a feature-length Netflix commission based on a teen novel sensation by Beth Reekles. “Beth was 15 when she self-published this book but it went on to generate more than 19 million reads on [online storytelling community] Wattpad,” says Cole-Bulgin. “We optioned the book because we could see that her connection with and understanding of the audience would prove a great starting point for a television production.”
The decision to make the film for Netflix, rather than a TV network, is interesting. Broadcasters may want to reach youth audiences, but producers also need to take a view on what is best for the long-term prospects of their property. In the case of The Kissing Booth, “SVoD was an obvious choice for us because that was where the youth audience have been going,” says Cole-Bulgin. “If we had this particular property for a more traditional channel, I think we’d have lost a lot of the audience.”
While Komixx adapted a digitally self-published work with The Kissing Booth, there is – still – a market for youth series based on traditional book properties. Komixx has optioned the rights to adapt Robert Muchamore’s best-selling young adult novel series Cherub into a TV drama, while The CW in the US is airing an Archie Comics adaptation called Riverdale (see box).
Elsewhere, Eleventh Hour Films is embarking on an adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels, with UK broadcaster ITV as a partner. Jill Green, founder and CEO of the prodco, says: “Alex has a core audience of eight- to 15-year-olds but our aim is to reach as wide an audience as possible. We’re inspired by Stranger Things, which appealed to adults and kids.”
Reasons to feel positive about the project are varied, says Green: “The books have now sold 16 million copies worldwide. Alex Rider is known in more than 30 countries, and fans all over the world have been asking for a new dramatisation. There’s an official website and Anthony Horowitz has his own website and a Twitter platform where he engages with fans. It’s also worth noting that many 20- to 30-year-olds grew up with the books.”
Alex Rider has, in fact, had a previous outing as a movie in 2006. So why does it make sense to revive the franchise on the small screen? “TV now has the ambition, the scale, the technology and the budgets to do justice to Alex Rider,” says Green. “We’re writing it for a generation that thrives on box sets and binge-viewing.”
On the merits of free TV vs SVoD, Green adds: “We are very happy to be working with ITV but there’s no reason this series can’t go on to become a signature show on SVoD. A gripping story and great characters will always attract an audience. Whatever the platform, standout ideas and story come first.”
The CW’s hit youth series Riverdale is based on Archie Comics characters originally created in the 1940s.
Show creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is a lifelong fan but he admits there were “a lot of discussions about how the show might work for a modern audience. We knew there was a lot of wish-fulfilment and aspiration attached to the central group of characters, but the real breakthrough came when we decided to add a mystery genre element to the show. There’s a darkness and subversiveness to the show that has appealed to audiences and differentiates it from One Tree Hill or Beverly Hills 90210.”
Key to getting the show right was casting, says Aguirre-Sacasa, to the extent that “we wouldn’t have made the show if we hadn’t got the perfect cast. Great casting is what connects the audience to the characters. You can aim for it, but it’s not easy to get right, and when you do it’s a kind of alchemy.”
Asked whether he takes social media into account, he says: “Everyone in TV is trying to do what they can to make their show stand out – but we didn’t specifically look for people with a large fanbase. The only cast member who really had that was Cole Sprouse (star of Zack & Cody, pictured above left in Riverdale) but he was in the show because he fought for, and is perfect as, Jughead Jones.”
The CW is known for its youthful profile, but Riverdale, which returns for a second season this autumn, sits slightly apart from some of its big-hitting network siblings because it’s not a superhero show. “I think the execs at the network recognise that it’s good to have all different kinds of shows for fans to get passionate about,” says Aguirre-Sacasa.
In terms of feeding that passion, he says youthful shows inevitably include a social media component. “We did some live tweeting involving the cast,and I think that gets the fans really excited. We also know – because the show airs on Netflix outside the US – that there’s a global fanbase for Riverdale who love the whole Americana, US high-school kind of world.”
tagged in: Ackley Bridge, Andrew Cole-Bulgin, Audience Network, Balloon Entertainment, BBC, Channel 4, Clique, Dave Evans, Eleventh Hour Films, Five2Twelve, George Ormond, Jess Brittain, Jill Green, John Scott Shepherd, KIKA, Komixx Entertainment, Marcus Roth, Netflix, Niklas Weise, NRK, Pretty Little Liars, Riverdale, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Skam, Social media, Stranger Things, The CW, The Forge, You Me Her