Investing in young adults

Understandably, broadcasters are increasingly worried about keeping young demographics watching. Audiences are presented with options they didn't have a decade ago. That's especially true when it comes to young adults - the 20-somethings who, with lots of disposable income and little responsibility, are some of the biggest media and new media consumers. Their habits are changing the way that television is watched.
March 1, 2008

Understandably, broadcasters are increasingly worried about keeping young demographics watching. Audiences are presented with options they didn’t have a decade ago. That’s especially true when it comes to young adults – the 20-somethings who, with lots of disposable income and little responsibility, are some of the biggest media and new media consumers. Their habits are changing the way that television is watched.

Max Valiquette, president of Toronto/LA-based Youthography, a marketing company focused on this demo, says that 20-year-olds have a lot of cash to burn and have more disposable income from choosing to live at home longer. All that money not being spent on rent goes towards buying communication or cultural devices, more so than with any previous generation. The market has already responded, and is overflowing with cell phones, laptops, portable and home video game systems, mp3 players and desktop computers for the techie in seemingly everyone.

The constant advancement of technology and the surplus of disposable income have caused major changes in media consumption habits, most notably for this demo.

‘What’s interesting is that television is more important to young people than ever before,’ says Valiquette, ‘but getting it from that conventional box in your living room is less important than ever before.’

New methods of digestion include pumping cable directly into their computer (making multitasking easier), watching repurposed television on websites where they can find it, downloading TV shows through peer-to-peer networks or renting full seasons of TV shows on DVD.

Tracking what the demo is watching is therefore limited, given that most metrics can only accurately track what’s on their TV set.

Jon Cogan, director of broadcast research at New York-based media agency OMD, can provide television measurements and, not surprisingly, proclaims that reality and factual entertainment is still king with this age group.

His numbers pulled from the season to date – September 24, 2007 to February 24, 2008 – show that the top us network non-fiction program is American Idol, with three million viewers aged 21 to 29. After that is Moment of Truth, a game show that airs after American Idol. (Cogan isn’t convinced of its popularity due to its lead-in.) Deal or No Deal ranks third, scoring about 1.3 million viewers aged 21 to 29. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is next at 1.2 million, and then Dancing with the Stars at 1.1 million.

On cable, Sci Fi Channel’s Ghost Hunters was the number one non-fiction show, with 459,000 adult viewers aged 21 to 29. MTV scored with Tila Tequila: Shot at Love with 378,000 viewers in that demo. Discovery ranked with MythBusters‘ 331,000 viewers. MTV’s other hit, The Hills claimed an audience of 269,000, while VH1′s Rock of Love followed with 250,000.

Variations in the demo
But this fickle audience has different habits as it progresses from the early to late 20s. The biggest difference for a 22-year-old versus a 28-year-old is the way the younger 20-something considers their time watching television differently than the 28-year-old.

‘That 22-year-old will have spent less time sitting in front of a television,’ says Valiquette. ‘It’s someone who’s grown up with 13-episode seasons rather than 26-episode seasons and isn’t used to having to sit in front of the tv every Thursday night at 8 o’clock to get the show they want. Some of that habitual television simply isn’t there for this person.

‘At the younger end of this age group, we have what we call a ‘digital native’ – young people who have grown up with the Internet their whole lives, so it’s integrated into the very fabric of their reality. It is a thing that is with you all the time. You are always online and you expect to always be,’ says Valiquette. At the older end, he says, are ‘digital tourists’ – where the Internet hasn’t been ingrained as much in their life.

Number one hit Ghost Hunters wins both digital natives and tourists because they all enjoy a thrill ride, says Mark Stern, EVP of original programming at the Sci Fi Channel.

‘There’s this great vicarious and exciting aspect in which you are actually with these characters as they’re in these scary places and it has that same kind of roller coaster/horror movie aspect to it that I think really appeals to that demographic,’ he says.

Other factors pique the 20-somethings’ interest. Stern credits the large amount of humor and the main characters being 20 or 30 years old as being relatable to viewers of the same age.

The Sci Fi Channel considers Ghost Hunters‘ genre as more docusoap than reality, although Stern believes the distinction is slight. ‘Most reality shows have a soap quality to them in that they’re really about the characters as well as what the characters are doing,’ he says. ‘The really great documentary style reality shows like Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch have that same quality – you’re as caught up with the characters and their relationships as what they’re doing.’

The success means there’s no sign of stopping the Sci Fi Channel now that it’s entered the factual entertainment realm. ‘What’s interesting is we’ve definitely gone on an evolution from ‘Should we be doing reality and does reality work for us?’ to ‘Let’s do more reality,” he says. ‘There’s no question now that reality works for us and works very well. Now it’s a question of re-inventing the form.’

Don’t worry about what it looks like
The proliferation of factual, reality shows and game shows that Stern hopes to add to brings about something intriguing: this demographic may not need the high production value that older generations expect. ‘There was a perception that anything filmed in digital or handicam for older generations wasn’t viable television,’ Valiquette says. ‘But a lot of reality television is filmed relatively cheaply and I think some good TV producers have learned that people will watch compelling television, and production values aren’t necessarily as important as we may have once thought they were.’

This difference in production quality goes back to the technology with which young adults are familiar. ‘I think young people in particular have grown up with webcams, their own personal digital video cameras, and are used to cell phone cameras. It’s a different sort of media language, a different vocabulary, than previous generations may have had,’ he says.

Cogan agrees. ‘You’re talking about the YouTube generation where things are being recorded and viewed on cell phones and shared. I don’t think high production value is going to make someone watch or not watch a program.’

Stern also believes that the genre is not defined by high production quality. ‘I don’t think viewers are coming to reality for production value – it’s more of a threshold issue. If the production value isn’t up to a certain standard, then people will notice and it will affect their viewing experience, but beyond that it’s all about the characters and the storytelling for them,’ he says. ‘I don’t think it’s a big priority for a reality audience in general and that demo, in specific.’

The same technology that lowers production quality expectations adds interactive value to programs. Cogan says that factual channels should use more involvement to help lure viewers. ‘Getting them involved – whether it’s through text-message pulls, contests, or trivia games – could be ways to pull them in to get them more involved. I think it’s become more of a participatory medium because of the American Idol factor – you have to vote and text message. I would advise really involving younger people in the facets of the program,’ he says.

Ghost Hunters has certainly benefited from this strategy. Two Halloween specials have featured interactive elements to great success. An online feature called ‘Panic Button’ allowed viewers of the live special or the separate multi-camera online feed to hit the panic button and send a message to the ghost hunters to alert them to something the viewer caught. Last Halloween the Sci Fi Channel registered 100,000 panic button hits, something Stern says they will definitely use for upcoming specials. ‘The whole live quality of that special really feeds very nicely into the texting and online component,’ says Stern.

With all of these factors to keep in mind, it’s still hard to pin down how to keep that viewer there for the long term. Even Stern doesn’t know what the exact strategy for a number one hit is. ‘We’re actively engaged in what other programming we can use to capture that audience. Obviously reality is a big part of that. There are all sorts of other ways that we’re looking into, to hold onto that demo now that they’re coming to us,’ he says. ‘That’s something that in the next year you’re going to see much more of on our air in terms of new programming.’

A more cynical and perhaps realistic viewpoint of the media landscape comes from Valiquette, whose advice to broadcasters is more of a wake-up call. ‘The big thing is to recognize that in this huge era of choice with 500 channels and the Internet and everything else, you can’t get and keep viewers the way you used to. You’re not going to get a viewer for 20 years; it’s just not going to happen,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to be very fast and nimble with your programming. You’ve got to market the hell out of it and you’ve got to be unafraid of finding a way for the Internet to be a critical part of your television marketing strategy,’ he cautions.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.