The Millennial mix

'The next great generation' is keeping broadcasters and producers on their toes to create compelling - and contagious - programming
September 1, 2009

MTV has long been a go-to barometer for youth culture, so this past April, when the network rolled out a slate that skewed heavily towards the millennial audience, the industry took note. Throughout the ’00s, the network found success with glitz-and-glamor reality series like MTV Cribs or The Hills, but the new line-up spotlighted shows in which bling takes a back seat to positive messages, in an attempt to curry favor with a generation that increasingly wants more depth from its media.

It’s characteristic of the millennials that they chose their own name. In 1997, ABC-TV identified a new generation of teenagers in America, and conducted an online poll to let this growing demographic select a label for itself. Respondents picked the term ‘millennials,’ to indicate that they would be coming of age at the dawn of a new millennium. This demographic has grown up alongside epochal revolutions in technology – file sharing, PVRs, social networking, YouTube, and the explosion of online/interactive platforms, among others – and today, they comprise the largest generation in U.S. history, making many broadcasters understandably interested in how to keep up with their constantly evolving needs.

‘What’s great about this audience is they have a different sort of attitude, a different perspective on life,’ says Tony DiSanto, president of programming for MTV. ‘They seem more hopeful, more into helping each other through team work. It’s a marked difference from a prior generation that had a slightly more cynical attitude.’

Depending on who you ask, the millennials, or Generation Y, are anywhere from 12 to 34 years old. But William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of the influential 2000 study, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, identify the core as those born between 1982 and 2001. The millennials are both the offspring of the baby boomers and heirs to their cultural significance – a massive generation whose collective experience is vastly different from the one that preceded it. As such, it’s no surprise that what they expect from media is also very different from what their parents did. From online TV to Twitter, iPods to Obama, the millennials are passionate about what’s new, forward thinking and thought-provoking.

‘They expect us to be diverse creatively, and to really paint across a broad canvas,’ DiSanto says. ‘When we do too much of one thing, that disappoints them. Stuff like The Hills still works, because people are invested in those characters. But where in the past there were a lot more series with a similar tone, similar characters, similar POV, we’re diversifying a lot more – you’re seeing shows like 16 and Pregnant hit in a big way. That’s almost the antithesis of The Hills… it’s raw, down and dirty, and it has a verité feel to it.’ DiSanto says new, ‘aspirational’ shows such as The Buried Life, in which kids travel across America on a mission to help people achieve their dreams, are also infusing familiar genres with a new worldview.

‘You can only produce content according to a formula for so long,’ says Eddy Moretti, founder and exec producer of VBS.TV, the broadband video network affiliated with the VICE brand – a touchstone of youth culture for the last decade – which recently partnered with MTV2 to have the network air select VBS.TV content. ‘I think millennials are really into being challenged, and if you don’t challenge them, they’re not going to watch your programming.’ VBS has found success with serial online documentaries that go beyond traditional reporting, such as The Vice Guide to North Korea, which saw correspondent Shane Smith travel to the communist state to produce a rare inside look at its clandestine society and culture.

Moretti sees the future of TV existing entirely on new media platforms; he cites studies claiming that millennials don’t even watch much TV anymore, consuming their video almost exclusively online. But others see the synergy between online and linear platforms as an opportunity to give the generation more choice in accessing content. A defining trait of the demographic is that they want, and expect, a multitude of options when consuming media; a recent study conducted by Motorola showed that 84% of millennials surveyed expressed interest in TV available on demand. Creating connections between traditional and new media platforms appeals to their dynamic experience of entertainment, in which the ‘primetime’ approach to TV is modified with a ‘my time’ credo.

‘I think the great opportunity is to go out there and use your trusted brand,’ says Simon Danker, director of digital content syndication for BBC Worldwide, which has deals with YouTube and iTunes to distribute BBC content online. Danker says the BBC in the UK has been successful in attracting younger audiences with its linear channel BBC 3 and through the launch of the iPlayer, strategies also at play in BBC Worldwide’s approach. The key, he says, is getting content into the magnetic portals where everybody is ‘hanging out’ – not just millennials, but also older audiences who are picking up some of their habits. ‘The biggest thing is working with TV channels, but also directly with digital platforms, to give audiences the ability to find the content in different ways,’ Danker says. Like MTV, BBC Worldwide still considers linear TV to be its core business, but also has a host of niche Internet channels, including the nature channel BBC Explore and one devoted to the auto series, Top Gear. The latter is also the anchor for a particularly novel approach aimed squarely at the millennial quotient: partnering with gaming consoles. Users of the popular Sony PS3 racing title, Gran Turismo, can now watch Top Gear through an integrated portal, and will soon be able to race on a custom track modeled after the one featured in the show. ‘It’s a way of getting the brand a little bit more immersed into the platform,’ says Danker.

DiSanto believes that regardless of platform, content is still the key. ‘For us, it’s about making compelling content that our viewers will get engaged with,’ he says. ‘If you make something great that this audience wants to watch, they’ll find a way to get to it. People are engaging with content more than ever, so it’s really just about figuring out the new models for the future.’

Catering to the millennial demo’s demands is not without its frustrations. A common complaint employers have about millennials is the same issue that influences their media consumption habits: they expect everything to adapt to their schedules and whims, rather than the other way around. Often, this means modifying core formats to fit the millennials’ notoriously fickle attention spans. This is particularly true for networks specializing in genres that have traditionally skewed to older audiences.

‘Over the past few years the traditional approach to science and nature programs has been thrown out,’ says Paul Lewis, president and general manager of Discovery Channel Canada. Lewis says that Discovery is focused on producing contemporary programming that speaks to the new generation, and on engaging audiences across multiple platforms – which often requires some tweaks to the core product.

‘While the broadcast schedule drives the content on all of our platforms, we are becoming more proactive at developing and providing this content on our audience’s terms,’ Lewis says. ‘But we recognize that you can’t simply take a show and drop it on every platform – you have to understand how a viewer uses a platform, what the behaviors are. So a full TV show may become shorter-form video clips that please a mobile crowd who are connecting with it on the go.’ Lewis points to the net’s daily science magazine, Daily Planet, as an example; the show is now available on broadcast, on the Web, via iTunes and as mobile content through handsets from Canadian telecom Telus, and incorporates user feedback through Facebook and Twitter to guide editorial direction.

Integration will be essential to unlocking the huge potential of the millennial audience. The partnership between VBS.TV and MTV2 is a good example. Last year, MTV2 in the U.S. broadcast six episodes of the online broadcaster’s content, and the move received great feedback. (MTV was reportedly so pleased with one episode, in which a VBS.TV correspondent braved a harrowing police raid on the sewers of Bogota, Colombia, that they recommended it for an Emmy for documentary production.) As the millennials continue to demand more choices, more voices and fresh approaches to content delivery, the fusion of platforms and formats is likely to become much more common.

A further secret lies in recognizing whom the millennials are listening to, watching and interacting with. Analyzing VBS.TV’s success with young people, Moretti is forced to make a confession: ‘We’re pursuing the stories and the pieces that interest us,’ he says. ‘And who is the ‘us?’ Well, they’re mostly not, like, my age.’ Millennials are not jaded, nor shallow, but they are savvy, and can tell when they’re being pandered to. Given the dominant position the demographic stands to occupy in media circles over the coming years, figuring out how to connect with millennials may be as simple as it is inevitable: get them to work for you.

‘Our producers are young people, so they’re making stories or pitching stories that they care about,’ says Moretti. ‘That, in turn, attracts the right kind of audience.’

MTV’s new reality-comedy series, MTV Pranked, provides another example. A millennial successor to the hit celebrity-driven show, Punk’d, the series is a 30-minute hosted compilation of viral-style videos shot by viewers and shared online, in which kids engineer and execute their own pranks.

‘It’s our newest hit,’ says DiSanto. ‘It’s MTV, made by our viewers, and it’s just awesome to see.’

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