The Evolution Will Be Televised
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.