For teen viewers, today’s media landscape is far removed from the one known by their parents. Content is now encountered (and expected to sit) across an immense variety of digital spaces: Facebook, Spotify, Stitcher, Snapchat, YouTube, WhatsApp, Netflix, iTunes… the list goes on. Into this mix, add the increased availability and use of exciting new devices that have powered up discovery and consumption among the teen demographic.
This multi-faceted environment has dramatically changed the way young people are consuming content (and how, as researchers, we engage with them). For teens, the media landscape is not divided into tidy channel siloes, but constructed from a multitude of discrete content packages – distributed across digital and linear. With so much content available at their fingertips, UK teens are emboldened to forge and curate their own media choices in a way that previous generations have not been able to, cherry-picking the content that they consider important on the platforms and channels they want to use.
This dramatic reshuffling of the media landscape is challenging, but also provides TV broadcasters with an opportunity – the success of diverse content strands from 13 Reasons Why to Love Island demonstrates that young people can become strong advocates of TV that resonates with them. And while there is no magic formula for creating this kind of media, the teens we spoke to laid out several broad rules:
Avoid the ‘Teen’ Label
In our work across media brands, we at Hook Research have seen that today’s young people are becoming more interested in learning about the hard-hitting issues that matter to them in an intelligent way. However, teens believe that many linear broadcasters are currently feeding them storylines that feel condescending or irrelevant and which are not adapting for teens’ maturing, selective tastes. It’s felt that many traditional ‘teen issue’ storylines have been constructed by writers who are out-of-touch with teen lives. As a result, these stories present artificially simplified portrayals of teen issues, or tell stories that are unwilling to deal with the brutal sides of issues faced by young people.
Who’s doing this well? One of the big stand-outs among teen viewers was Scandi drama Skam – a Norwegian-language programme that has a strong following around the world. Young viewers felt like the show told stories that managed to give an authentic and fresh spin to topical issues. These weren’t sugar-coated, teen-only plotlines: its four popular seasons explored issues that ranged from sexual abuse through to religious integration. In trans-Atlantic programming, 13 Reasons Why was name-checked for its exploration of mental health and suicide in what was felt to be an honest way, while Pretty Little Liars was also noted by young people in the UK for its willingness to reference classic literature and Hitchcock. Beyond American and Scandi dramas, in British soaps the still birth storyline in Coronation Street, the slow burn Alzheimer’s storyline in Emmerdale, and the exploration of poverty in EastEnders landed with teens.
Across our research, we saw young people responding most positively to shows that treated them with respect. Teens felt that these programmes regarded them as mature viewers who were interested in – and able to handle – these poignant issues, and they responded with strong loyalty and high engagement.
Create characters that connect with teen viewers
Characterisation is obviously very important for teen viewers – but, like the storylines themselves, young people don’t need these figures to be aimed exclusively at them. Teens show just as much enthusiasm for big, well-written characters (regardless of age) as older viewers. Indeed, when creating young teen characters, broadcasters need to be careful about the accuracy of these representations: we’ve seen that teens are more likely to be hyper-critical of characters their own age and with similar backgrounds – particularly around the accuracy of their speech/slang and their reactions to situations that viewers might have experienced themselves.
Strong, authentic characters don’t just belong to the realms of TV drama, but extend into all corners of the teenage TV ecosystem. Love Island may be heavily (almost blatantly) formatted but young viewers felt that they were getting to know real people: the language they used, the prejudices they showed, and – importantly – their refreshingly frank and modern portrayal of relationships and sex. Although the viewers we spoke to recognised the constructed elements of the programme, they did feel like ITV’s summer success managed to showcase the authentic, real natures of the principal figures – and it is this element that they now look for in the characters (fictional and non) they connect with on-screen.
Talk Internet to Me
The final rule that our teen viewers reiterated throughout the research was the necessity for brands to connect with them in the digital spaces they frequent. While we’re frequently pushing the merits of Talking Human, it’s important that brands can also Talk Internet: engaging with teens in the digital spaces they frequent in the language they are used to.
From iMessage, to Snapchat, to Messenger – today’s young people are accustomed to following narratives threaded throughout the various social media networks and messaging apps they use daily. Viewers feel that 13 Reasons Why summed up their experiences nicely in its much-talked about social media campaign. These ads showcase the many strands of conversation teens weave across various apps and devices on an hourly basis. Is it surprising, then, that young people might connect with media that mirrors this experience?
Again, Skam managed to stand out in UK audiences’ minds for its innovative distribution model that teens thought captured the spirit of these multi-platform conversations. To complement its broadcast (online through the broadcaster’s digital platform, but also on linear TV as well), scenes from the show were released online in real-time per the timeline of the programme, building up to a cumulative episode each Friday. Those scenes were considered essential viewing by the show’s fans and were closely monitored and sought out around the world.
However, while Skam set a high benchmark for multi-platform narrative, teens were adamant that they do not need this extreme level of novelty from their programming. What they need from brands is engagement: US late-night talk shows are doing this particularly well, producing highly shareable content for social media. Corden’s Carpool Karaoke and Kimmel’s Celebrities Read Mean Tweets, in particular, have proven popular with UK teens, given their high production quality, snackable length, and pithy writing. At the same time, Made in Chelsea was noted for its live tweet-alongs during each episode. This social model allows viewers to engage with their favourite West-London celebs and react to the shocking and silly moments onscreen. Consumers now expect to engage with their favourite brands online, and notice when brands are absent from this space.
Where do broadcasters go from here?
Over the next few years, it is inevitable that teens’ media landscapes will continue to splinter. To connect with teen viewers, it’s true that broadcasters need to stay nimble and adapt their content to these changing tastes – being able to ‘talk internet’ is a boon for brands looking to stand out in this regard. Yet beneath the ever-shifting landscape of new devices and platforms, strong, traditional foundations of storytelling still provide a structure to teens’ viewing needs and it is in this area where linear TV can truly shine going forward.