The last few weeks have sent shock waves through the teen and young adult content business. First came YouTube Premium’s announcement that it’s pressing pause on ordering any additional scripted series, and moving its existing programs in front of the paywall.
Then there were a spate of articles questioning how many Facebook users are watching scripted originals such as “Sorry for Your Loss” and new off-net acquisitions “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.”
Third was the news that Netflix is cancelling its mockumentary “American Vandal” after two seasons.
This retrenchment of the teen content business isn’t limited to streamers. After getting into scripted programming in 2010 with “Teen Wolf” and “Awkward,” MTV is now pivoting back to reality shows, with an emphasis on nostalgic programs like “Jersey Shore: Family Vacation” and “Teen Mom OG” for those who enjoyed MTV a decade ago.
Freeform cancelled its signature original “Shadowhunters” after several seasons of declining ratings.
And while the old WB found success with “Buffy,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “7th Heaven,” successor network The CW is finding that today’s viewers connect more with series about adult superheroes. Its one attempt at a WB-style teen drama, “All American,” opened to disappointing ratings this fall.
Where have all the teen viewers gone? To social media, YouTube, and platforms like Snapchat, where they can go on their phones and quickly digest videos featuring mostly unscripted content, with some low-budget scripted in the mix.
These are videos that last minutes, not hours, and cost at most five figures or low six figures to produce, not seven or eight. It’s content with greater viral potential, more social opportunities, and in many cases more relatable stars and situations.
Today’s teens would rather watch a real student study for an exam than see a scripted Hollywood teen do the same.
What are the implications when creating content for young viewers?
*Keep it short. Attention spans are so much shorter than they were a decade ago, and fewer teens want to wade through a 22-episode season of 44-minute episodes. In addition, 44 minutes is a lot to watch on a phone. So if you’re producing for teen eyes, keep it short (five to 10 minutes), keep it mobile-friendly, and consider producing it in Portrait instead of Landscape.
*Keep it free. Teens have shown very little willingness to pay extra for content, and $9.99 a month is a lot to ask from somebody still in school, or working in a minimum-wage job.
Teens have been conditioned by YouTube to think online video should be free, and in exchange they’re willing to see limited commercials. So put content in front of your paywall, and pay for it with less-intrusive ads.
Better yet, incorporate the marketing messages directly into the video through product placement, sponsorships and advertorials, and then make it easy for viewers to click to order the product being advertised.
*Keep it real. Real life is incredibly rich, complicated and dramatic for today’s teens, and telling real stories is often more compelling than producing scripted shows. We have DREAMers, teens campaigning for equality and free expression, fighting for safety in schools, becoming involved in the political system, and seeking solutions to climate change. Tell their stories and amplify their voices, and you’ll have content with a lot more viral and brand-building potential than the millionth sitcom or soap opera.
Teen content preferences are changing rapidly, and producers need to evolve with them, or risk being rendered as obsolete as a black-and-white TV.