YOUTH MEDIA: IS TV TUNED IN FOR YOUTH? Will the advent of digital give broadcasters the chance to deliver elusive, but desirable, youth audiences? Belinda Archer reports

Remember that oh-so-golden moment in television’s glittering past when a spotty youth made himself sick up in a glass and then drank his own vomit?

Remember that oh-so-golden moment in television’s glittering past

when a spotty youth made himself sick up in a glass and then drank his

own vomit?

The stunt was part of the infamous Janet Street-Porter-inspired ’yoof

TV’ which plagued our screens in the early 90s with programmes such as

the Word, Network 7, Club X and the Girlie Show. Together they offered a

gruesome combination of on-screen bikini-line waxings, worm-eating

midgets and exposed body parts, all co-ordinated by a handful of inept

presenters fluffing their way through autocues and standing far too

close to the camera.

These shows are among the few that mainstream, terrestrial television

has so far had to offer in the way of dedicated programming for the

nation’s youth. As one pundit sums up: ’It is a sad indictment of

teenage TV that we can only name around three programmes from the entire

mainstream television history - and that these three programmes were all


While children’s programming was, and is, relatively speaking, well

served, the teenage audience has always been slippery. It’s still a

desirable one for advertisers and the arrival of digital may give

broadcasters a greater chance to target this market without running the

risk of alienating other viewers. But while channels such as Nickelodeon

and the Cartoon Network offer a simple solution for the younger

generation, the teenage market is a tougher nut to crack.

Despite the major broadcasters continually paying homage to the teenage

viewer and claiming they are bending over backwards to accommodate the

special televisual needs of 14- to 20-year- olds, most only specifically

allocate them around an hour a week (usually after 11pm on Fridays or

early on Sunday mornings).

And the main reason is because it is very, very hard to get the

programming right, as was so gloriously demonstrated by Street-Porter

and her tribe.

Her brand of ’yoof TV’ - whether you thought it was cult and

ground-breaking or just embarrassing - wasn’t watched by that many

people. The Word only pulled in audiences of 380,000 and the Girlie Show

managed an average of 270,000 viewers.

Given the choice, most youth-oriented advertisers still preferred to

book into soaps, funny US comedies or football matches rather than be

seen alongside unsavoury antics such as a fame-hungry youth sucking an

old man’s set of false teeth (another visual treasure from the


Jon Wilkins, creative communications director at New PHD, comments: ’It

is the ultimate aim for a broadcaster to create something that is

contemporary and youthful but not risible. Most programming targeting a

youth audience is pretty awful. The shows just don’t make teenagers say

’wow, they really understand where I’m at, man’. They view them - if

they watch them at all - to have a laugh, and what advertiser wants


Aside from the near-impossibility of getting the mix right, youth telly

also necessarily alienates other viewers. The chances are that what

blows the frock up of the average teenager is not going to entertain

bigger, more important advertiser-friendly audiences such as ABC1 males

and C2DE housewives. And major broadcasters don’t like doing that.

Nevertheless, teenagers cannot be ignored. In short, they are a highly

attractive market. There are lots of them - according to TGI there are

around seven million 15- to 24-year-olds - they are likely to be brand

fickle, hence most appealing to advertisers and, more than this, they

have plenty of disposable income. TGI values their combined personal

income at pounds 26.2 billion and, while this means they may not be ’big

earners’ individually, they are not burdened by mortgages, kids, Peps or

pensions. What they have got they go out and blow. And they go out a

lot, making them very attractive to the cash-rich leisure sector.

Given the evident difficulties in creating teen TV, most broadcasters

just rely on delivering the teenage demographic via the massive appeal

of other programmes such as soaps or sport. The thinking goes that if 16

million viewers are tuning in to Sally and Kevin’s latest marital

traumas on Coronation Street, well, some of them are going to be

’youth’, aren’t they?

And the approach does work because mainstream television does


Youth-oriented advertisers can reach the numbers they require by buying

into big movies or soaps, plus they can arguably achieve more stand-out

than by booking airtime into dedicated youth programmes whose commercial

breaks are generally jam-packed with youth brands.

Patrick Morrison, account director for Sony Playstation at Manning

Gottlieb Media, says simply: ’Mainstream TV is still key. Teenagers

watch telly and, in terms of numbers, television delivers far more than

other media.

There is nothing that can compare with it.’

The fact that, according to a 1997 survey by BMRB, teenagers watch more

than four hours of television a day and 31 per cent of them have TVs in

their bedrooms suggests they really do like watching TV. Even though

they do other stuff - like playing video games, clubbing, drinking with

their mates and, heck, even having sex - they still love TV.

According to the latest wave of the jointly funded youth survey, ROAR,

60 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds ’want to watch’ Friends and, while

only around 20 per cent manage to because the others are doing something

else, it shows that if Friends was scheduled differently, it would

deliver even bigger numbers.

Even the relatively low viewing figures of what specialist youth

programmes there are on the main channels still amount to more than,

say, the much-vaunted teenage press delivers. BARB data shows that

around 800,000 people tune in to the repeat of Chris Evans’ TFI Friday

on Friday nights, delivering the upper end of the teenage market which,

although not huge in general TV viewing terms, still represents more

teenagers than FHM (which is read by older teenagers) with its

circulation of 700,000, and loads more than Sugar, which sells 460,000

every month. Total sales of a monthly magazine take a while to complete

too, while TV can deliver that same figure in one quick half-hour


John Carver, creative director of the specialist youth consultancy,

Harry Monk, adds another key point. ’The environment of TV is still more

dynamic, engrossing and exciting than any other medium for teenagers,’

he says.

But despite the proven ability of the mainstream stations to deliver

useful numbers of teenage viewers, it is ex-pensive to use them and

there is a lot of wastage, hence many are convinced a more efficient way

of reaching them via TV can be created. This is the territory of

specialist cable and satellite TV stations such as Rapture TV, the

independent youth channel that launched last November, plus Flextech’s

Trouble, which relies heavily on US imports, and the music channels, MTV

and the Box. All of these aim specifically to deliver a small but

perfectly formed teenage audience to interested advertisers.

Robert Ditcham, founder director of Rapture, comments: ’Teenagers are

exactly the area we are in. Broadcasters always want to stretch the

definition so they can get bigger numbers and bigger audiences, but that

is not what delivers. You have to be focused in this market to be able

to deliver but if you give teenagers TV that is relevant, targeted and

original, they will consume it.’

The programming mix on Rapture ranges from slots specifically on the

club scene to boy bands, make-up, football, fashion and computer


It concentrates on wholly original programming that is no more than two

weeks old and styles itself as a sort of magazine for TV, aiming to

build a relationship with its viewers like teen magazines do. The Box,

by comparison, delivers a pure youth audience by simply exploiting the

average teenager’s liking for music.

Vince Monsey, chief executive of the Box, comments: ’We offer 100 per

cent music with constant music videos that clearly target the 12- to

24-year-old age group. Most teenagers love music, so it is an extremely

efficient way of solving the programming problem of how to target them.

Music is more powerful than offering them shock programming, soaps or US

imports like Sky One does with Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place,

which are very neutral.’

The smaller TV operators have quite a compelling pitch. In the last five

years all commercial audiences have dropped by 17 per cent for 12- to

20-year-olds, according to BARB. In addition to declining audiences, the

mainstream stations are also suffering from significant airtime

inflation, while the likes of Rapture all offer an affordable, highly

targeted way of reaching a youth audience with zero wastage.

’We are not about replacing existing advertising strategies. We are very

small and will not be able to knock the significant channels out of the

way. Of course, teenagers will watch Corrie in bigger numbers, but we

are a channel offering TV particularly for them. We are a complementary

addition. Corrie is doing a different job,’ Ditcham says.

Morrison agrees. ’You can reach teenagers in boatloads via Coronation

Street. We can reach 36 per cent of our audience with Corrie, but it’s a

question of quality rather than quantity with smaller channels. These

are valid if you are after a more specific youth market or if you want

to communicate a particular message. The cost is minimal and there is

more opportunity to be flexible in terms of commercial tie-ups,’ he


Some observers believe ITV2, ITV’s digital terrestrial channel which

launches at the end of the year, and the advent of digital in general

will improve TV opportunities for youth advertisers still further. ITV2

has already declared its intention to aim for a younger audience than

its sister station, while the possibilities of further targeted

programming and opportunities for interactivity provided by digital open

up yet more chances of reaching teenagers.

Andrew Chowns, project director for ITV2, comments: ’We are aiming for a

younger, more male audience than ITV1 but we’re especially interested in

the teenage audience which is not well served at the moment,

particularly with original British programming. We can be more

experimental and bold than ITV1 because we don’t need to serve such a

broad audience.’

The new channel has commissioned a daily one-hour teenage magazine show

called Bedrock, which is set in a bedroom, identified as a vital feature

of any teenager’s life. Other strands include Baywatch Britain, a

six-part documentary series on the surfers of Newquay, and Gatecrashers,

a guide to blagging your way into concerts and parties, kicking off with

a bid to get backstage at a Spice Girls concert.

At the same time, the BBC and Flextech are gearing up for the launch

next month of UK Play, a dedicated music and cult comedy youth channel,

via BSkyB’s digital satellite platform.

’Digital will help us to reach a youth audience in a deeper, more

meaningful way than at the moment because of interactivity and the

chance to get more involved in, say, programming. Teenagers are also one

of the two main groups that are going to be most interested in digital,

along with the tecchies,’ Morrison says.

But while both mainstream and niche broadcasters hungrily search for

ways of delivering a purer teenage audience and hunt for the next yoof

TV phenomenon, some media buyers make the point that teenagers are

still, arguably, human beings as well as teenagers. Like their dads and

their grannies and their teachers, they just want good telly: they don’t

necessarily want to be ghettoised by patronising programming that is

specifically made ’just for them.’

Wilkins concludes: ’A lot of young people now don’t want youth

programming. In general, they don’t think there is a need for specialist

programming. They are the same as other audiences - they like sport,

funny US comedies, soaps and documentaries.’