The Evolution Will Be Televised

Recent controversy over Millennial-targeted television programming provides insights into the differences in the way American generations view the world.

Let's go all the way back to 2009, when Gossip Girl was promoting a Nov. 9 episode wherein a sexual threesome was to occur using the text-like "3SOME" teaser. At the time, the Parent's Television Council (PTC) President Tim Winter, a member of the Baby Boom generation, called the ad "reckless and irresponsible." Those of us from Gen X thought that the campaign was clever and cute. Gen Y tuned in just to see what all the noise was all about.

In a report issued in November 2010, the PTC criticized the most popular online distributors of commercially generated video (Hulu, Fancast, AT&T and SlashControl) for failing to protect kids from explicit content. Once again, Boomers railing against a new medium pioneered by Xers ... a technology that will most assuredly be perfected by Gen Y.

Jump to December 2010 wherein the PTC criticized "Glee" and the "Vampire Diaries" for showing an "eagerness to not only objectify and fetishize young girls, but to sexualize them in such a way that real teens are led to believe their sole value comes from their sexuality" within a report titled "Sexualized Teen Girls: Tinsel Town's New Target." Most recently, the PTC has excoriated MTV, calling "Skins" the "most dangerous show for teens."

Is the media out of control and recklessly putting the nation's youth at risk? The December PTC report concluded: "To any parent of a pre-teen or teenage girl, the harm of such imagery is readily apparent." Is it? Really?

Let's look at what Gen Y is actually doing. When it comes to sexuality, statistics published by the National Center for Health Statistics show that rates of pregnancy, abortion and birth for girls aged 15 to 17 are at the lowest levels since 1980. If the PTC's alarum was well founded, the youth that the PTC claims are being victimized by the television networks would be having babies more often, not less often.

Let's look at another favorite of youth alarmists: violence in video games. Looking at stats for violent crime dating back to 1973, both offender rates for youth aged 16-19 as well as victimization rates for kids aged 12-20 are at their lowest levels since 1973. "Pong" was invented in 1972, followed shortly thereafter by "Death Race" in 1976. If violence within video games induces violence, wouldn't the release of "Death Race" have been the start of an upward rather than a downward trend?

So much for what teens are doing ... what about what they're thinking? Last week we surveyed 1,300 kids aged 14 to 24 within our nationally representative monthly survey, asking a number of questions about TV shows, specifically, what they found most interesting within television programming. When it comes to what's driving Gen Y's television preferences, personal relationships and interpersonal dynamics (76%) far outweigh binge drinking (33%) or illegal drug use (35%).

When it comes to the media frenzy surrounding "Skins," 12% of viewers said that the "Skins" controversy made them more likely to watch the show, 14% said that the controversy made them less likely to watch, 28% said that the controversy had no impact and 46% were not even aware of any controversy. Of those kids who watch "Skins," one-third (34%) said "it is just a fun show to watch; I don't take it very seriously" while one-third (33%) stated that they watch "Skins" based on the relationships between the characters involved.

I had a chance to see previews of episodes 1 and 5 of "Skins" in mid-December and have since seen episodes 1 to 4 as they've aired on MTV. I've also managed to see the first five episodes of the U.K. version (via the same streaming video networks that the PTC castigated) for comparison purposes. While I'll admit that the transposition from the U.K. to the U.S. represents an interesting challenge on a number of fronts, the authenticity of the U.S. version shines through whenever the writers (who are themselves members of Gen Y) probe into the complexity and nuances of the relationships between the Gen Y characters as well as the relationships that they have with the adults in their lives. Gen Y is all about "Likes" and "Friends," so understanding relationships is far more important to Gen Y than the headline-grabbing bad behavior that attempts to pique their interest.

Gen Y craves authenticity, leading many of them to turn away from marketing campaigns that titillate rather than accurately and honestly describe a show. Loyal "Vampire Diaries" watchers have been bristling at the recent "Got Wood" and "Catch VD" marketing campaigns, feeling that they don't accurately reflect the show that they know and love.

For those of us in the youth marketing space, the need to leave our own generations' baggage behind as we design products, market and communicate with Gen Y is the surest path to longevity. As the torch is passed from the Boomers to Gen X, we can expect to see less drama, fewer culture wars and a more practical approach to building shows written by Gen Y and targeting Gen Y.

Tags: gen y, television, tv
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8 comments about "The Evolution Will Be Televised ".
  1. Merri Grace McLeroy from Integrated Marketing Strategies LLC , February 11, 2011 at 10:16 a.m.

    Another great post, Dan. One is not always one's target audience.

  2. Benjamin Easaw from Epsilon , February 11, 2011 at 11:07 a.m.

    I understand your POV but irresponsible marketing is just that...irresponsible. The quick dollar seems to blind any long-term perspectives especially in the youth marketing arena. Advertisers dropped Skins like a hot potato because they realized the public wasn't buying into the smut being pushed by MTV.

    Does life imitate art or art imitate life? Because of the impressionable demographic in the youth marketing sector, marketers need to understand that "life does imitate art" more than the other way around.

  3. Brian Mcmath from Clear Channel Radio , February 11, 2011 at 11:07 a.m.

    My sole complaint with your post, Dan, is that the two examples you cite of intergenerational disagreement involving the Boomers both use the Parent's Television Council as a proxy for the entire group. While admittedly Boomers by and large tend to lean a little further right than us young 'uns, there's a huge difference between "Well in MY day" conservativism and screaming at the FCC every time someone shows half a butt cheek on TV. If I were a Boomer, I wouldn't much appreciate having the PTC speak for me...that's all I'm saying.

    But as one of the elder members of Gen Y (turned 28 this week, cripes!), I can vouch for our desire for authenticity, which is why scare tactics, misinformation, the hard sell, and hyperbole will never get us to change our (social OR retail) behavior. We've been yelled at and lied to by marketers and authority figures since birth, and we've all got one hell of a headache from it.

  4. Brian Mcmath from Clear Channel Radio , February 11, 2011 at 11:23 a.m.

    @Benjamin,

    If life truly does imitates art, and if the writers of these shows and the marketers of these products truly wield that much power over us, the oh-so-impressionable young viewers, then why do Gen-Y focused television shows ever fail? Why do SO many marketing campaigns targeted at our demographic fall flat? Why is so much time spent getting into our heads by marketers and television executives if, as you indicate, we'll just soak up whatever you put in front of us and create our own reality from it?

    The truth is, we're the MOST cynical, MOST fickle, and MOST difficult to convince generation yet. As much as it PAINS me to say it because I despise them, shows like Skins and Vampire Diaries wouldn't last a season if they weren't tapping into something that's already there.

  5. Daniel Coates from Youth Pulse, Inc. , February 11, 2011 at 11:52 a.m.

    Hey Brian,

    You raise a fair point ...

    As Howe & Strauss pointed out within their 1991 book entitled 'Generations', one of the core characteristics of the Baby Boom generation is their tendency to proclaim themselves arbiters of public morals. This always happens when an idealistic generation rises to adulthood during a 'spiritual awakening'.

    Whether it's Newt Gingrich on the right or Bill Clinton on the left, the conversation frequently divides into two opposing camps that engage in a 'culture war' type of conflict (e.g. "Here's how I think you should live your life ...").

    Undoubtedly, my post should be taken with a grain of salt as it comes from a Gen X'er. Left largely to their own devices as youth, X'ers developed a healthy amount of skepticism about the intentions of those waging culture wars above their heads.

    It's a little like understanding your Myers Briggs profile in a corporate setting. The context get clearer once you understand how your generational tendencies skew the information that you process, allowing you to better understand how and why other generations do the same ...

  6. Brian Mcmath from Clear Channel Radio , February 11, 2011 at 12:01 p.m.

    Totally! I equate that culture war that you describe to parents bickering with each other at a Little League game. Most of it is solely to assuage the ego or provide solace for the parent, rather than actually have any effect on whether Billy gets to play first base or not.

  7. Daniel Coates from Youth Pulse, Inc. , February 11, 2011 at 12:48 p.m.

    Hey Benjamin. Check out the Social Graph of the PTC at http://bit.ly/PTC-network.

    Advertisers dropped Skins because they fell victim to lobbyists waging a culture war.

    I'm a parent of kids aged 12 and 14 and I'm pretty sure that the PTC doesn't accurately reflect the perspective of most parents of today. Maybe they could re-brand as the 'Right-wing Grandparents Television Council'? That may not be catchy enough ...

    Are there any brandmeisters out there that could help the PTC?

  8. Marla Goldstein from Around The Bend Media , February 11, 2011 at 10:16 p.m.

    I am definitely well within the Boomer Generation and the PTC emphatically Does. Not. Speak. for me. I am also a parent. My kids got my values from me, not some group of bluenoses. My TVs (all of them, oddly enough) have on/off switches and channel selectors.

    The PTC (and Tim Winter) speak for no one but themselves. The PTC exists solely to get publicity for itself and thus, members. It serves no other purpose. That and to make sure that no one, anywhere, at anytime is having a good time. Ever.