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Theme Festival - Teen Programming

Programming Profile

Teenage kicks


C21 Digital Screenings’ latest Theme Festival spotlights teen programming, exploring the many challenges of reaching this elusive demographic and new shows that aim to keep young audiences entertained. Nico Franks reports.


It’s not easy being a teenager. But what’s harder is making TV programmes for teens – a demographic we’ve been told over and over again simply doesn’t watch television.


They do, however, watch a hell of a lot of content, be it on TikTok, YouTube, Netflix or a host of other platforms that allow them to zero in on the things that matter to them.


And what’s clear about this current generation of teenagers is that they care a great deal more about social issues than any before them.


With 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg at the forefront, this generation is engaged with and enraged by the state of the world – especially given the events of 2020 so far.


There’s the effect the pandemic has had on their education and job prospects, of course. But the killing of George Floyd in May, the fight against systematic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement are arguably of bigger importance to teens today.


Beano Brain, the insight consultancy arm of long-running UK comic The Beano, states that young people today are looking for and appreciate positive role models, such as actor John Boyega, who spoke out for Black Lives Matter. They are also seeking help to cope with their feelings and negotiate the complexity of the issues facing the world.


As for diversity, this generation is frustrated with the way the adult world and its institutions differentiates and discriminates based on factors such as race and gender, according to Beano Brain.


ViacomCBS-owned Awesomeness has an impressive track record when it comes to creating content for teenagers – or Gen Z, as it calls those born between 1997 and 2012 – and making it available on multiple different platforms.

Shelley Zimmerman, executive VP for live-action studio at Awesomeness and Nickelodeon, says: “With respect to the global Black Lives Matter movement, we are so energised by how Gen Z is taking a leadership role in addressing systemic racism.


“This is truly an incredible generation and we are in awe of their hearts and their power. We know that this is the most diverse generation and that issues of equity and justice are incredibly important to them, so it’s been a really exciting time to see our own cross-platform content addressing that.


“The reception from our audience has been great because these are the stories they care about. We are also launching a limited five-part series called What It’s Like that will tackle timely topics for Gen Z in the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election. The premiere episode explores the experience of being a Black teenager in America,” adds Zimmerman.


Authenticity and relevancy are the two key traits pursued by Awesomeness, which was co-founded by Brian Robbins, who now heads Nickelodeon, in 2012 on the back of the boom in user-generated content on YouTube.


“Brian Robbins founded Awesomeness on the principle that we need to be providing quality content everywhere our audience is. We have always created bespoke content that really looks at how our audience uses specific platforms,” says Zimmerman.


Light As a Feather
Light As a Feather

“Another important initiative is selling TV series and films to the streamers from our live-action studio. We’ve had many great studio successes, including the Primetime Emmy-nominated series PEN15 (Hulu) and Daytime Emmy-nominated shows Light As a Feather (Hulu) and Trinkets (Netflix). We know the importance of the streamers to reach Gen Z, so those relationships are super-important to us.”


How does Awesomeness engage with a platform like TikTok, which could be seen as a competitor but Zimmerman prefers to view as complimentary?


“TikTok is incredibly important and we are dedicated to providing great content there. Talent has always been a key pillar of Awesomeness’s strategy, going all the way back to working with the early Viners and then building deep and on-going relationships with the top YouTubers.


“So TikTok has been another great avenue for creator discovery. And what we do so well is to help that talent grow their own businesses and also introduce them to new opportunities on new platforms. TikTok is another important platform to service our audence and find opportunities to help new talent grow their identity and brand across the Awesomeness ecosystem,” says Zimmerman.


A moment of reckoning arrived a few years ago when traditional broadcasters realised Netflix was overtaking them when it came to holding sway over young people – an audience many of them had been guilty of ignoring.


For example, the BBC said in 2018 that it had found 16- to 24-year-olds were spending more time with Netflix in a week than with all of BBC TV, including its iPlayer VoD service.


It reacted by launching a section dedicated to original and acquired content aimed at young teens on its iPlayer, with an expanded remit to target 12- to 16-year-olds.


The move saw the pubcaster acquire shows aimed at the demographic and make them available on iPlayer, as well as put out a call for original drama, comedy and documentary ideas for 12-16s.


The Cul-de-Sac
The Cul-de-Sac

This was part of a trend for European pubcasters becoming more open to content too mature for their linear channels but which could sit on their on-demand services, potentially drawing in teens spending so much time with rival SVoDs.


Dystopian live-action sci-fi thriller The Cul-de-Sac, for example, was sold by Jetpack Distribution to the BBC, as well as YLE in Finland and DR in Denmark, having been produced by Greenstone TV for TVNZ2 in New Zealand.


The show centres on a girl who wakes to find all the adults in her world have mysteriously vanished. It’s then up to her to keep her siblings safe as dark forces begin to tear apart the world the grown-ups have left behind.


Having previously focused wholly on animated series, UK-based sales firm Jetpack made its first foray into live-action for older kids with the show and it has since added other titles targeting the demo, such as Katy (1×90′).



The feature-length format is particularly popular with this demo, as highlighted by Komixx Entertainment’s The Kissing Booth, which led to a boom in the format after the film’s success on Netflix.


“You can tell a bit more dramatic storylines within a TV movie than in a series, which tend to be more light-hearted. You can approach sensitive subject matters and don’t have to sugar-coat them over 13 hours as you’d have to with tweens,” says Jetpack CEO Dominic Gardiner.


US studios are lining up to develop content aimed at young adults, such is streamers’ desire to hook in young audiences.


MGM Television last year partnered with digital entertainment company Brat to develop premium original scripted and unscripted content for young adults.


Sony Pictures Television (SPT) agreed a deal with Wattpad, which was involved in both The Kissing Booth and Light as a Feather, to develop the web storytelling platform’s content for the small screen. The deal, which came after SPT made a similar one with Komixx the year before, gives SPT a first look at new Wattpad stories, which the companies will then coproduce as TV series.


Meanwhile, certain public service broadcasters continue to fight back, be it launching scripted series on Instagram, as YLE in Finland has, or by tapping into funds such as the British Film Institute’s Young Audiences Content Fund, which has been set up specifically to boost the amount of content for this age group available in the UK.


Gardiner describes the current teen audience as a “unique generation,” one for whom social and political issues need to be built into any programming made for them. This has been due in no small part to many of them growing up with the internet at their fingertips, 24/7.


“They are incredibly sophisticated. They know everything as they’ve been googling everything their entire lives. Their lives are also going to be more difficult than those of their parents, and they are very aware of that. It’s what makes them a little bit more sensible too.


Stranger Things
Stranger Things

“Their education grades are better, they’re a lot more dedicated. They don’t spend as much on themselves and they’re not as flippant or carefree as teens were for my generation. We didn’t know anything beyond what you learnt at school or someone down the street told you,” says Gardiner.


A major challenge those making programmes for teenagers face is that, alongside user-generated content, the audience is also used to watching high-end US series such as Stranger Things and Marvel movies, which represent the very cream of the TV and Hollywood crop respectively.


As a result, broadcasters have realised they need to band together to create content with budgets that can compete with those of the deep-pocketed streamers, just as they have done with high-end drama for adults.


Shows such as Heirs of the Night, Find Me in Paris and The Unlisted are examples of this trend and the latest to hit screens is Mystic (13×30′), a drama based on best-selling author Stacy Gregg’s The Pony Club Secrets.



Produced by Libertine Pictures and Slim Film + Television for CBBC, Seven Network in Australia and New Zealand’s TVNZ, the show is set in the fictional peninsula of Kauri Point in New Zealand and follows a group of teenagers as they find a way to save it from environmental disaster.


Simon Crawford Collins, MD of Slim Film + Television and the show’s executive producer, describes it as an “epic” that he brought to the BBC after lamenting the lack of drama available on free-to-air television for his teenage kids.


“The budget we have for this is the same as we were making Spooks for. Lots of horses, stunts, landscapes and action. And it taps into the big environmental themes I know are important to this audience,” says Crawford Collins.


Mark Talbot, former head of comedy development at Hat Trick Productions, is hoping to continue a tradition for popular teen programming made in the UK, which has received a boost from streamers.


Talbot joined Beano Studios as chief creative officer last year to oversee a push into live-action comedy and drama for teens and young adults, mining the IP of its owner DC Thomson, which has been publishing The Beano since 1938.


Again, the streamers’ desire for teen programming, along with broadcasters’ recent willingness to compete with them for that audience, has stimulated the shift in strategy at Beano Studios, which had previously made animated comedies for children.


“When I got the call from Beano, I was very flattered, but I said, ‘I don’t really want to make kids’ shows.’ They said, ‘We thought you might say that – neither do we,'” recalls Talbot.


Long-term, the aim is to produce numerous long-running series based on IP from the DC Thomson library, which Talbot describes as “an untapped treasure trove.”


“Imagine us as the British Marvel,” he continues, pointing to the potential of titles and characters such as Commando, Starblazer and Nick Jolly the Flying Highwayman.


Well-known characters from the Beano are also set to get the live-action treatment, with Minnie The Minx due to be the first out the gate after Beano Studios teamed up with All3Media-owned Lime Pictures, the firm behind Netflix’s teen horse drama Free Rein.


Another major challenge facing those looking to reach this demographic is how much they are able to show when it comes to sex, drugs and all the other things that teenagers might find exciting.


This is often what differentiates a tween show from a teen one, with the likes of HBO’s Euphoria very much targeting the older end of the demo.


The series stars Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and is based on the Israeli show of the same name. The story follows a group of high school students as they navigate a minefield of drugs, sex, identity, trauma, social media, love and friendship.


Trans actress Hunter Schafer has been described as the series’ breakout star and the show, which has a trans consultant in Scott Turner Schofield, has been praised for exploring gender and sexuality in a way that feels authentic to its audience.


Produced in partnership with New York-based film and TV prodco A24 – the same company behind cult favourites like Hereditary and Uncut Gems – Euphoria also counts musician Drake as exec producer, which never hurts when you’re trying to reach young audiences.


It’s an enviable set of auspices that few would be able to re-create. But the success of shows like Euphoria highlights the fact that while teens may be harder to reach than ever, they are still an extremely worthwhile audience to target.


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