The launch of "Pivot" and plans to launch other millennial-oriented cable networks, such as "Revolt and Fusion," is the strongest signal yet that the traditional TV networks have lost their way in trying to appeal to America’s largest and most diverse generation (born 1982-2003). The new channels are trying to connect to millennials by capturing the generation’s “change the world for the better” attitude or simply their music or ethnic identity, all of which are better ideas than the type of programming broadcast networks have deployed in a failed attempt to win eyeballs from a generation with a notoriously fickle attention span. Broadcast networks better find the answer soon or they are likely to end up becoming what CBS President Leslie Moonves called “bastard television,” the progeny no one wishes to acknowledge.
The fundamental disconnect between network TV and its potential millennial viewers is not the usual suspect, technology. Yes, millennials are devoted to social media and have none of the love of broadcast television that Boomers acquired in their youth, or even the type of affinity Xers have for cable TV that started when they were teenagers demanding, “I want my MTV.” According to leading communications research and consulting firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, Xers and Boomers will engage in 8.4 and 7.2 non-TV activities during prime-time hours, while millennials will engage in 10.4 activities. Millennials are much more likely to go online, visit a social network, listen to or play music, play games or just socialize out of the house and away from the TV box when networks most want them to pay attention to their programming. But those behaviors are an indication of how poor the programming is, not the root cause of the problem.
There are too many cynical members of Generation X who don’t begin to understand millennials, if they even try, making programming decisions for the networks that are being greenlighted by even more clueless Boomers. The result are network bombs like the American version of “Kath & Kim,” the ill-fated “My Generation,” and the most recent ratings victim, “How to Live with Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life).” These programs suffered from casting popular Gen X actors, who didn’t know how to behave as millennials, in plots that substituted stereotypes from Generation X’s youth for character development and were as out of touch with the current experiences of millennials as smart phones are from clamshell cell phones.
Millennials are an optimistic, collaborative generation that believe in social rules and try and live by them. Teenage smoking rates are now the lowest ever recorded. From 1993 to 2010, the gun homicide rate in America declined 65% for those ages 12 to 17, the largest percentage decrease among all age groups. Yet older generations in charge of creating programs designed to appeal to this age group continue to broadcast stories about kids flaunting the rules, getting in trouble with the law, and engaging in the types of behavior that X-ers and Boomers did when they were young. But that is not the way millennials live.
There are of course some bright spots in this dark landscape, such as much of the Disney Family Channel’s programming, or shows like “Modern Family” and “Parenthood” that are very good at capturing intergenerational differences, even if their portrayal of millennials still has a whiff of Generation X in it. But these exceptions merely prove the general rule that without a greater understanding of the unique characteristics of the millennial generation, network television can expect its ratings to go the way of Gen X-oriented networks like Fox, leading to a future where, to quote NBC Entertainment’s Chairman, “flat is the new up.” Or worse.
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Mike Hais and Morley Winograd are Millennial Generation experts whose research based, candid insights have been featured on the Today show, PBS News Hour, and in numerous national publications. Full disclosure: Mike Hais recently retired from Frank N. Magid Associates as vice-president of entertainment research.