Millenials, those coveted 14-to-24-year-olds consumers of culture, don’t like losers. But they don’t like winners, either. They like heroes—perhaps an underdog—who might “win” a small battle … and when he or she does, it’s for the benefit of society. In the Millenials’ ideal world, there are no “losers” unless they’re explicitly evil. That’s probably why so many young people rallied around NBC’s Chuck, Josh Schwartz’s action comedy about a geeky superhero, and tried to save it from the chopping block with an online campaign. Millenials want that fantasy land where geeks and screw-ups and regular folks reign supreme to come true on their television screens. That’s why you’re seeing networks like MTV switch up their brand from less cynical, shallow fare (My Super Sweet 16) to more socially conscious programming (T.I.’s Road to Redemption).
So, if NBC does decide to renew a third season of Chuck, and if the network, like MTV and other channels, starts paying more attention to those youngsters who are tip-tapping, tweeting and blogging about their favorite characters and plot lines, how will that not only change rankings, but television programming itself?
Here’s one idea: If Generation X was all about grunge, malaise and snark (“I want my MTV”) this new “civic” generation will be about participation, hope and, well, niceness (“May I have my MTV, please? Why, thank you!”).
Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, co-authors of Millenial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, & the Future of American Politics, explain in their book that if Baby Boomers were individualistic idealists and Gen-Xers were cynical loners, Millenials are “activist doers.” And that’s going to play out on television, they told The Observer.
“There has been a decline in TV viewing across the public, but particularly among young viewers, simply, in part, because of competition from other forms of entertainment, [like Facebook and YouTube]. But it’s also, in large part, I think, that the programming is not meeting the needs of this particular young generation of people,” explained Mr. Hais, who served for a decade as vice president of entertainment research at Frank N. Magid Associates, where he conducted audience research for hundreds of television stations and cable channels. “Today’s 18-to-24-year-olds are the same as they were 20 or 40 years ago. Television really needs to pay close attention to that and recognize generational changes.”
Their book was first published in March 2008. In it, the two fellows for D.C.-based political think tank NDN (the second generation version of the New Democratic Network) laid out evidence that the first wave of the Millennial Generation, born between 1982 and 2003, would provide the bulk of Barack Obama’s margin of victory in November 2008, which obviously came true.
So it’s no surprise that some of those same young people rallied around NBC’s Chuck and used similar tactics from the Obama campaign to attempt to save the show. They don’t like when nice people, like Chuck or Obama, lose out. Remember, this is the same generation that grew up with a trophy for every player on their team. Everybody is a winner.
The co-authors, along with their political predictions, anticipated Millenials boosting the ratings of “nicer” networks, like ABC, CBS, Nickelodeon and Disney, because of characters like Hannah Montana. Maybe that’s why shows like The Biggest Loser are so popular. Sure, there’s only one “loser,” but everybody wins because the contestants lost weight and got healthier!
Edgier networks like Fox News, with all their yelling and screaming and active division of political sides? Expect their numbers to plummet, the authors say.
Mr. Winograd and Mr. Hais explained that some of the “feel-good, do-good” traits of this new generation were bred on the Internet. With so many in constant connection with their friends and family on email, phone, Facebook and Twitter, how can they feel as alone or lost as the previous generation? They’re listening to others, constantly. Expect to see fewer brooding, loner types (no more Chuck Bass?).
As the “like” feature on Facebook, Vimeo, Tumblr and other sites teaches us, young people want to be nicer to each other on the Internet these days—and they mostly want to hear from their friends or chosen networks and which stories and TV shows their friends find interesting. “This unwillingness to abide by the opinions of experts is another fundamental trait of the generation,” Mr. Winograd said. They’ll go to user-generated review sites, like Yelp, to get lunch suggestions, or consult their Twitter followers to see which movie or TV show they should start watching, instead of picking up a newspaper or tuning into some other so-called “expert” for a review.
“All those things, where the crowds are better than the experts in terms of the source for the right answer plays itself out in the media as well,” Mr. Winograd added.
“They say we don’t need cultural arbiters to say what they should watch and what they should pay attention to,” Mr. Hais explained. “People themselves can do that and now are in position to actually, rather than just influence TV ratings, they can actually produce the programming that people watch.”
And certainly, young people, more and more, are making their own viewing content available on sites like YouTube and Vimeo and others (a quick search proves that there’s plenty of results for video-diary-type entries).
But how else will young people be able to influence television programming? There’s already American Idol, in which their votes can change which singer succeeds. ABC’s In the Motherhood was meant to be an experiment in incorporating users’ real-life stories relayed to the network online and placed into the plotline, but was controversial among the Writers Guild of America and the idea fizzled.
Jon Gibs, vice president of media analytics of Nielsen Online, told The Observer that social networks might soon have a big impact on live broadcasts. He gave an example: Think of a tasteless joke made at the Oscars. Producers can monitor Twitter, and if users are upset by the comments, they can inform the show’s host and have him say a joke or address the comment on the live broadcast, instead of doing catch-up in the newspapers the next day.
“I don’t know about you, but I have my laptop open whenever I watch TV,” Mr. Gibs said.
MTV knows that is how most of their viewers are watching their shows these days. So they’re experimenting with new models for programming—hoping to get back all those young viewers they’re losing to the Internet…with the Internet.
On April 28, they announced a new after-school show that they hope will be the Total Request Live for the Millenial generation. The “working title” is The Alexa Chung Show, and it’s a one-hour, interactive chat show hosted by a British model. She’ll welcome celebrity guests and introduce musical performances, just like on TRL, but there will also be a segment reviewing the best of the Web.
Audience members—those at home and even some of those screaming, sign-wielding fans who used to so famously clog up Times Square—will be able to interact with Ms. Chung and her guests live on the show, through Twitter. “Whether Alexa’s audience is at home, on the move or on the set, Twitter and MTV will capture their experiences and bring them right into the show,” according to an MTV statement. A video application they’re calling “RockYou Live” will also allow audience members to upload their favorite viral videos and videos they shoot themselves, and they’ll be aired on the show.
This sounds just Millenial enough to work. But Mr. Hais and Mr. Winograd warn that Millenials sometimes like to just kick back and enjoy their favorite shows. “Television is a passive medium,” Mr. Winograd told The Observer. “It washes over them and they don’t necessarily want to interact with television.”
Mr. Hais chimed in too: “People are thinking about the television screen as something to watch and the computer screen is something to be interactive with and I think that’s the fundamental challenge”
He added: “If the television programmers said people are talking about our show, let’s do something about it. They really need to be online and engaged in the conversation to do something about it.”