Capturing the 'Heart and Soul’ of Youth

Keep it real. That seems to be the mantra for the cable programmers that are reaching out to tween- and teen-aged viewers.

“To grab and hold 11-to-17-year-old viewers, your core content has to have a heart and soul,” Disney Channel senior vice president of programming Scott Garner said. “But it also needs to make kids laugh while being relatable.”

Nickelodeon’s successful tween-targeted TEENick lineup includes sitcom Drake and Josh, which drew more than 38 million viewers monthly and was the No. 1 regularly scheduled series on cable among tweens 9-14 in the first and second quarter of 2006, according to a Nickelodeon spokesperson.

According to Nickelodeon executive vice president of development and original programming Marjorie Cohn, “kids adore Drake and Josh because these guys have a great chemistry [and] underneath their comic conflict, they share a bond, and their coming together is the heart of the series.”

TEENick’s female equivalent Zoey 101, which bowed in January 2005, stars Jamie Lynn Spears as 13-year-old Zoey Brooks, whose independent nature is put to the test at newly co-ed Pacific Coast Academy. According to Nick, Zoey, heading into its third season, averages 21.8 million viewers per month and is currently the No. 4 tween series on TV, based on Nielsen Media Research figures.

Both shows’ creator Dan Schneider attributes their success to the fact that they tackle “content that’s relatable to kids but that parents and older teens can watch as well.”

Schneider stressed the importance of forgoing “cutesy little sound effects or cheesy transitions” and making the shows “as sophisticated as I can.”

Casting is also key: “I look for kids who feel real and act real,” he said. “TEENick has content that is real,” said Schneider. “But it’s also programming that a parent can walk away from and know that what their tweens are watching is age-appropriate.”

The N, Nickelodeon’s block geared at 14-to-17-year-olds, returns in the fall with new seasons of Beyond the Break, Degrassi: The Next Generation and South of Nowhere, as well as O’Grady, a new original animated series. Debuting in November is sketch comedy series The Brandon T. Jackson Show.

According to Tom Ascheim, executive vice president and general manager of Nickelodeon Television, The N’s programming is all about “the state of being a teenager [and] the emotional core that centers on being in high school, where there are very unique times. Moments that are over the top that yield great drama.”

Disney Channel programming such as That’s So Raven and Hanna Montana continues to strike a chord with young audiences. For the week ended Aug. 13, the network reported that it was home to 15 of the top 20 most-watched telecasts (broadcast and basic cable) in primetime among tweens ages 9-14, according to Nielsen.

Earlier this year, Disney Channel scored tween success with original movie High School Musical, and has has high hopes for Cheetah Girls 2. That movie, which premiered Aug. 25, is a follow-up to the August 2003 TV movie. The original was the No. 1 movie with kids 9-11 (2.4 million viewers) and tweens 9-14 (2.5 million viewers).

Currently in the original movie pipeline: Return to Halloweentown IV (debuting in October) — an original movie starring High School Musical’s Lucas Grabeel — and Jump Up!, the saga of a teen boxing protégé who discovers his true passion: competitive jump rope.

“The tween and teen demo has been with us from the very beginning, especially boys, because we’re offering stuff they can’t find anywhere else,” Cartoon Network senior vice president of program development Michael Ouweleen said, referring to Cartoon’s Adult Swim block.

Adult Swim’s Toonami block of anime and action series such as the young Ninja-in-training show Naruto has also been “absolutely positive for this demo,” he added.

While Cartoon’s upcoming fare includes animated superheroes such as the Fantastic Four (debuting Sept. 2), based on the Marvel Comics franchise, several of the network’s premieres will feature characters and plotlines that tween and teen viewers can relate to.

Debuting in November, the animated Class of 3000 focuses on a group of musically-gifted kids and their teacher (voiced by hip-hop artist Andre Benjamin of the duo OutKast). “The show looks great, it’s funny and it will have a new track by Andre each week,” Ouweleen said.

In December comes Re-Animated, the part-animated and part-live-action story of a 12-year-old boy who sees cartoons wherever he goes. “Think of Roger Rabbit for the middle-school set,” said Ouweleen.

“For this demo, as for all demos, networks must have a point of view along with being a place of trust,” said Ouweleen. “If you do this, the audience will come to you.”