The N Finds Its Niche

Teens flocked to malls across America this summer clutching love notes and shrieking marriage proposals to the young stars of hit show Degrassi: The Next Generation. The stars were on a mall tour sponsored by MTV Networks’ nighttime teen network The N, which has struck ratings gold with the drama.

“It’s a great thing to see an audience find a show on their own,” says Tom Ascheim, executive VP/general manager of Nickelodeon Digital Television. “Being a teen is all about finding your identity.”

Since launching in 2002, The N has found its identity as well, evolving from targeting tweens (9- to 14-year-olds) with educational programming to playing to mainly female teens with glitzier series, both acquired and original. The network splits bandwidth with daytime preschool network Noggin, programming from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. ET. Adolescent drama Degrassi, spun off from a franchise launched 25 years ago in Canada, anchors the network. The series begins its fifth installment on The N Oct. 7.

Degrassi and original Instant Star carried the network this summer, as teen viewership grew by 70% over last year. But with a distribution of 44 million homes, The N is still tiny. Projected ad revenue for 2005 is unavailable, but a look at its competitors sheds light. Young-skewing Fuse, in 38.2 million homes, will take in $35.4 million in net ad revenue for 2005, according to Kagan Research. ABC Family, in 88.6 million homes, will net $148.9 million.

The N’s viewership falls between the two, averaging 63,000 viewers 12-17 this summer from 6 p.m. through 3 a.m., according to Nielsen Media Research. For the same time period, ABC Family averaged 139,000 viewers in the demo; Fuse, 9,000.

The N began selling ads in May 2004, and advertisers in categories like cosmetics and movies are noting that it can deliver a solid audience in the demo, as opposed to a mixed bag of kids, tweens and teens, like its competition. With a median age of 14.7, The N clearly connects with teens.

“We threw them the proverbial bone last year, and it worked,” says Shelly Hirsch, CEO, The Summit Media Group, the buying division of 4Kids Entertainment. “Nobody has that real niche that they do.”

The N is producing two half-hour original dramas to bolster its lineup. Eleven-episode South of Nowhere, about an Ohio family moving to Los Angeles, will premiere in November. The 22-episode Boarding School, about four girls at a surfing school, premieres in April. N execs aim to confront the male/female audience skew, which sits at 72% female.

But its biggest hurdle is carriage. Even with a solid teen audience, The N can’t command the CPMs of the competition. But N execs know linear programming isn’t the only way teens watch TV. The N runs extra footage on VOD, and it uses the Web to premiere some series and preview new episodes of others. It even crafts mini-shows on the Web from storylines sent in by fans.

To fete Degrassi’s new season and the franchise’s 25th anniversary, The N will air a behind-the-scenes special Sept. 30 and a two-hour block of classic episodes Oct. 6, in addition to pairing the first few episodes of the new season with similarly themed past episodes. The N also hopes to see a boost from the retrospective book Degrassi Generations: The Official 411, which hits stores this week.