Reaching Out to Tweens and Teens

Robin B. was begging her parents for a cell phone even though they felt she was too young, only 11 years old. Yes, but the Westchester County, N.Y., sixth-grader replied, all the older boys had them and if she wasn’t mobile she was out of the loop.

These days, the boys — teens or those soon to turn 13 — are using their phones for more than just talking and sending text messages. They are downloading video clips and ringtones from Fuse and MTV: Music Television, or sending in their opinions about Tony Hawk to extreme sports network When the weather turns cold, they’ll catch the basketball highlights that NBA TV has specially produced for the tiny phone screen.

Cable programmers whose audience includes a large set of teen-aged boys can sympathize with Robin. They’ve had to work feverishly to keep up with the quick-changing habits of the post-Generation Y teen set and emerging technologies that have improved video quality on cell phones in Moore’s Law fashion.

Fuse, for instance, is working on a way to ask fans to submit short video clips of their own extreme activities taped on mobile devices that could be played back on the network.

“The idea is kind of giving them 15 seconds of fame,” said C.J. Olivares, Fuel senior vice president and assistant general manager. “We’re opening the network to receive content created by viewers. It’s the kind of empowerment that’s shaping more of the network.”

There are few things more challenging than engaging boys in the hours when they are either not watching TV or multitasking while keeping a casual eye on the tube.

Programming executives are trying to reach the critical young adult male of tomorrow by getting inside their heads and reaching them outside of the box — the television that is. Teen-agers are too busy to watch much TV, but that doesn’t mean they are always second-class citizens to networks.

At ESPN, teens make up just 8% of the network’s audience, a figure that fits in well with its 18-to-34 and 18-to-49 male skew. But it also represents concern for a network that wants to create the adult sports fans of tomorrow by building brand equity with those kids.

“Brand loyalty is the most important thing to us,” said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior vice president of research and sales development. “We say our core audience is 18- to 34-year-old males, but does that mean that’s all we care about? Absolutely not. We’re incredibly conscious of this teen element, which is why we’re embracing the whole idea of integrating media. Sports consumption is changing. It’s not just about TV being where the sports fan is. That’s why we’re going into the mobile business — to help us build brand [loyalty] among kids.”

ESPN is in the process of setting up wireless platforms for its content under senior vice president of mobile Manish Jha much the way the National Basketball League has done with Brenda Spoonmore, the league’s senior vice president of interactive services.

Reaching teen boys is not as easy as just throwing up a bunch of on-air spots or advertising in Sports Illustrated.

“Relevance is always the place you start,” says Betsy Frank, MTV Networks executive vice president of research and planning. “This is an audience that has never known a world without things created just for them. … They want what they want when they want it.”

Key factors cited by Frank and others include:

  • Urgency. Teen boys are uber-competitive and knowing what’s hot now is critical currency on the social circuit. “We’ve trained our audience to always expect something new. What’s the new thing. What’s the hot new thing,” Frank says.
  • Technology. Teens believe they are the first generation to feel completely comfortable in using a variety of platforms to communicate with each other. A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project survey reported that 87% of 12- to 17-year-olds go online. ESPN’s research suggests about 12% of teen boys subscribe to a news or sports gathering service.
  • Community. Fragmentation has broken down media conduits into so many small pieces that teen prize whatever can make them feel a part of something bigger, such as blogging and text messaging, according to Frank
  • Interactivity. This is one area that most separates the boys from the girls. Few species are as competitive and opinionated as teen boys.

“Guys use mobile phones to get extra information, to be smarter than everyone else and to express their opinions. Guys like to have themselves heard,” said Robert Weiss, the head of entertainment for Fuse, which tries to tap into this trait. “Women use [technology] as communication. They are text messaging more. There is a chatter there that is not there among guys.”

Fuse tries to tap into that trait through its “F-List” countdown show in which viewers determine each week’s list by voting online or over their mobile devices. “A lot of young men seem to be drawn to the ability to decide what’s going to be on TV,” Weiss adds.

This desire for control and competition plays out in the boom in online fantasy sports leagues where the intense competition for eyeballs has led sites to withdraw their pay models.


NBA TV is not sure how it will structure its next fantasy league, but executives are certain they’re reaching teens through their broad strategy of video games, cell phone video clips, fantasy leagues, and in-home arcade games.

“If you’re a fan of the NBA you’ll be drawn to all different assets,” Steve Herbst, vice president of NBA TV, “You’ll play a video game or go to to check out different fantasy teams.”

But the audience for games has actually aged with the kids who grew up with them, according to Greg Lassen, the league’s senior director of electronic and interactive license. “There are more entertainment options than there were 15 to 20 years ago.

To reach its base across all interactive platforms, NBA TV edits different packages of highlights for phone, Web and television viewers. Producers cut more low camera angle shots for the Web site and an even more specialized look for the 45-second clips that reach phones’ small screens.

“We use a lot of hero shots. You know the ones where a guy hits a basket and there’s a close-up on face,” Spoonmore says, adding that her goal is to shorten the lag time between when the clips are on NBA TV and through mobile devices.

Gaming is also a critical part of ESPN’s brand extension strategy where it indoctrinates pre-teens with its six-foot tall Game Station center before introducing them to video games voiced by network personalities, such as SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott, as they get older.


The games are sold through ESPN’s 18-month-old consumer products division where the network can reach youngsters by giving away a motocross BMX bike at the recent X Games even as it finishes up relaunching its action sports portal.

Next up for the new division is ESPN Shot Block Basketball, in which the rim of the nerfball game plays defense by flapping open and closed as motor-mouth analyst Dick Vitale screams in the background.

In the end the critical factors to achieve credibility with the demanding teen male set are honesty and attitude.

“Humor is absolutely key,” says Viacom’s Frank. “The more subversive the humor the better.” And the attitude? “They have a perspective, a point of view. They are not ready for objectivity yet. They want to know where you’re coming from.”

The programmers likely feel the same way about its young audience.