Why is UK geek TV missing out on the teen demographic?

Feature Caroline Preece 21 Jan 2013 - 07:01

Following the cancellation of Switch and The Fades, Caroline asks why UK fantasy television is failing to grab teen audiences...

The Christmas finale of BBC1’s flagship fantasy, Merlin, felt like the end of an era in more ways than one. The show itself was adored by its fans, and the shock of cancellation was still fresh when the long-running fantasy series breathed its final breath. But it also spelled the end of another homegrown geek series aimed at a young audience, leaving just Misfits to fly the flag in its absence. Two recent attempts to capture young adult audiences for fantasy shows, The Fades and Switch, have both been commissioned and cancelled in the last couple of years, posing the question: why can’t UK genre television hold onto that elusive teen demographic?

People might have complained that Merlin became too influenced by the more ‘adult’ Game of Thrones in its final hours, but growing up is something that happens to most series of its kind. It still never really strayed from the mission it started with, which was - inspired by the success of Smallville in the US - to tell the story of King Arthur and Merlin in a way that would appeal to younger viewers alongside older, existing fantasy fans. Merlin was an undeniable victory for geek viewers, and helped to usher in a mainstream acceptance of sci-fi and fantasy that might now be inadvertently left behind.

Commissioning decisions in the UK, like everywhere, come down to ratings and budgets (original drama, it should be said, has a much heavier price tag than the likes of Snog, Marry, or Avoid?, and it was ultimately budget cuts that forced BBC3 to choose between The Fades and Being Human) but the fact that shows like The Fades are taken from us because of the desired demographic wasn’t being reached is very interesting. The Fades, which of course went on to win a BAFTA after its cancellation was announced, should really have been a big hit with young audiences for if only the fact that it took great pains to combine Skins’ sixth-form setting with the horror conventions that now seem oh-so-stylish given the triumph of American Horror Story in the US (not that horror trappings helped the fate of this year’s now-cancelled 666 Park Avenue).

The Fades premiered on the same night as Channel 4’s Fresh Meat, with the former capturing 732k (3.1%) of the viewing audience to the latter’s 1.47m (8.4%). This is the highest number the short-lived series ever reached, and may well tell us something about young viewers’ tastes. Fresh Meat, like Skins and The Inbetweeners, was advertised as salacious and, for lack of a better term, ‘cool’. The Fades, despite being aired on BBC3, was advertised in a way that appealed to older viewers already pre-disposed to what it was selling. To be fair, this is pretty demonstrative of what the two shows really were, but it’s also a crying shame.

There’s obviously more to attracting and keeping a teenage audience than using a protagonist in their age-group, but is it the case that the majority of 16-25s in the UK are turned off by fantasy and sci-fi shows in a way we hadn’t previously realised? The BBC talks about series like Merlin and Doctor Who as ‘three generation TV’, but the trio of audiences they’re talking about are children, parents and grandparents. What about that limbo between CBBC and more adult programming on BBC1? Well I’d guess they’d tell us that that’s what BBC3 is for.

BBC3 was the home of The Fades, and is a channel that was rebranded in the noughties to appeal to the very demographic that weren’t being catered to by the main channels. A direct rival to similar channels E4 and ITV2, today’s digital telly now looks like a battleground for ‘yoof’ audiences. Like the US equivalents, The CW, ABC Family and MTV, genre output is few and far between but, who’s winning? If we’re talking about successes, then Misfits secures it for E4, but it still pales in comparison to the crossover impact of Skins or The Inbetweeners

On the subject of ratings, some might be surprised to learn that it’s a problem in America, too. The CW, despite their best efforts in branding and choosing interesting ideas, often reports abysmal numbers for most of their shows. Their proudest achievement of recent years is probably The Vampire Diaries, which straddles the silly and serious line that The Fades also attempted to, but the numbers tuning in every week pale in comparison to other networks like ABC or CBS (don’t even get me started on how many people are watching The Big Bang Theory). Series only exist at all because of advertisers’ desperation to be seen by 18-34s, which obviously isn’t a factor on BBC3.

But it is for ITV2, so why didn’t Switch tempt a bigger audience? Featuring slightly older twenty-something girls in the lead roles, the show was still clearly aimed at younger viewers who had outgrown CBBC and were in search of something a bit older (yet still light and frothy) to watch. ITV2 is a channel mostly populated by series like Celebrity Juice and The Only Way is Essex, so we should first and foremost applaud their attempt at weaving some genre television into their schedules, but Switch was largely ignored  upon arrival. Some might argue this was simply down to its quality, but it's worth remembering that Charmed ran for eight seasons in the US.

But is there a silver lining to all of this? BBC3, ITV2 and especially E4 are increasingly being seen as pinnacles of innovation and creativity, with young audiences somewhat introducing the online viewing, webisode watching, multi-platform viewing habits most now use every day. Skins, despite not being sci-fi or fantasy, is responsible for so much in terms of online activity that supports today’s television, and the same practices of offering online content that complements the main show have helped make shows like Misfits big hits. The magic formula hasn’t yet been found, but I’d guess that when it is, it’ll be found on these three channels. 

In general, isn't it the case that young people have less time and patience for watching television at the time of broadcast? It’s all very well and good for outlets to target the cherished demographic, but are they actually interested in reciprocating? Back in the day, there were limited options for teenagers in terms of entertainment (books, cinemas, VHS/DVD, radio etc.), but now the choice of potential entertainment is pretty much endless. You’re more likely to see an eighteen-year-old simulaneously tweeting on their iPhone, playing on XBox Live and downloading the latest US show via file-sharing than making an appointment to watch that well-reviewed fantasy show in the living room at 9pm.

For those uninitiated in illegal downloading, however, The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl and countless other youth-targeted series from the US are still watched on E4 and ITV2, so it’s abundantly clear that this is where we should be looking to find similar shows being made on our own shores. The fact that this isn’t happening with more frequency is a shame, but ratings reports suggest that it’s partly the fault of unreceptive audiences. Many adult viewers would never consider tuning into the homes of TOWIE or Made in Chelsea, so is there an unfair prejudice that keeps viewers away? 

I’d guess this isn’t the main problem, since plenty of Den of Geek readers are more than open to watching the odd CBBC show should they appeal to their tastes, as the likes of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Horrible Histories, and Wizards Vs Aliens prove. The Fades might have been a great example of how brilliant fantasy-teen TV can be done in the UK, but what’s the use if nobody outside of the core group of cult viewers ends up watching? With the departure of Merlin and a distinct lack of exciting new UK genre shows on the horizon, it might be time to add fourth audience to ‘three generation TV’.

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What's all this 'teen demographic' thing?

When I was a teen I had Quantum Leap and the X-Files, not things made by the Camden Tourist board.

Switch was fundamentally odd. It was bad in a post-pub good way. You can't do Charmed set in Britain. It just doesn't work.

The Fades was interestingish, I watched the first one, but the dialogue was hard to follow, for me anyway. Not the language, just the volume and enunciation of words. It's all very well speaking street-mumble when it comes to cred, but that doesn't make watching it any easier. I can't say I was intrieged enough to carry on. It didn't reek of plot and sense.

Merlin at least knew it's audience, the older children. And didn't try to be hip. I'll be missing Camelot and it's daftness much more than the Camden Witches or those mumbly lads.

Teen fantasy/sci-fi hasn't existed before, as far as I know. It's either squarely for kids sometimes with appeal for adults - Who, Merlin - or it's adult - everything else.

It's not like teenagers never watch these genres, they don't need their own special programming where teens-go-on-adventures. All that does is alienate older viewers and possibly patronise the ones the show's aimed at.

I'd imagine that with it's post-watershed eye-torture sequences, Utopia's probably been a big hit with all those too young to be officially allowed to watch it.

When I was growing up the kind of shows that teens were interested in were the likes of Star Trek TNG, Quantum Leap, X-Files, Babylon 5 etc - i.e. we watched the stuff made for 'everyone' - we did not have 'our own sci-fi shows' and that was fine by me - teen programming was stuff like TOTP, The Word and Def II - all music and pop culture related shows.

comparing Switch to Charmed is a joke right? It was bloomin awful.

Oh for heavens sake, teenagers are the easiest marget to please, because we'll watch anything thats GOOD TV! I'm sixteen, and I didn't watch Merlin because it was aimed at young people, I watched it because I enjoyed it, the same reason I watch Doctor Who, Being Human, The Thick of It and Wizards VS Aliens, regardless of the age range they're suppose to hit. If the telivison companys would just make decent shows (instead of crap like snog marry avoide) they would have no problems attrackting young people.

Surely the teenies are out getting a life rather than watching telly? And something aimed at teens is of no appeal to us oldies (i.e. 30+) so that kind of demographic targeting just backfires completely. Had The Fades been targeted at a more adult audience (i.e. with an older cast, as per Ripper Street etc.) it would still be on the air.

I recall that anything purposefully aimed at teens I would intentionally avoid

*sigh* This old chestnut again huh?

Try this then Programme Schedulers:

QUIT ......... AIMING ........ AT ........... DEMOGRAPHICS!!!!!!!!

If it's a good show and has been advertised properly, it will get an audience. If it doesn't get large figures the first season, maybe get another season going and the audience will pick up on it (yeah i'm still bitter about The Fades cancellation).

As people have said here, the shows that have proven popular have never really been about focusing on one demographic and haven't been pulled when it's wound up being more excepted by an older audience.

The BBC particularly seem to be focusing waaay too much on their charter that defines that EVERYONE be catered for. FYI Government/BBC: you can't do that. The adage 'You cannot please all of the people all of time' seems apt.

I couldn't agree more - I'm fed up of hearing about the Demographic - I want to watch what I want, not what someone tells me I should - it's the same with radio - according to demographic I'm not allowed to listen to Radio1 any more, but it seems I'm not actually old enough to listen to Radio2 - again, according to demographic and "target audience".

I also think to some extent, some of these target audience might find it uncool to watch some of the shows found on this site, hence the need to watch the "reality" shows that are produced!

Switch's lead-in was The Vampire Diaries, which is funny, well-acted and includes some very handsome men in its cast (there's no use pretending that's not a factor). From the trailers and the few minutes of Switch I watched before turning off, it had none of those things. Sex and humour - never mind teens, that'll appeal to lots of people.

Ooooh don't get me started about the whole Radio 1 demographic thing, Saying that, i've moved over to Radio 2 now and it's not THAT bad. But I do feel like I miss out on newer music. And god forbid they play any hip-hop on Radio 2!!!!

I apoligise to everyone, but I am going to go on a bit of rant. The thing that really angers me about the BBC is that they've never been interested in championing Sci Fi/ fantasy shows. It's clear from watching Micheal Grade talk about Dr. Who in Room 101, is that BBC controllers are less interested in what their audience wants to watch and more interested in what they think people should watch. It's shocking that Dr. Who got cancelled when it still had higher ratings than shows that didn't get axed and if Grade was so disgusted with the cheap sets then he should have put more money into the show rather then getting ride of it all together. I feel that getting rid of an award winning show like The Fades and yet keeping on horrible comedy shows like Miranda and Mrs. Brown's Boys is wrong. There are other places where they can cut budget. In a way its Ironic that the BBC fails to champion fantasy/ Sci Fi as they are better at making them than they are at comedy. Anyway rant over.

I haven't been a teen for quite some time, and I've never watched a single episode of any of the shows mentioned. But I have to agree with some of the other commentors here - when I was a teen, I was interested in the more adult stuff, mostly sci-fi which wasn't specifically aimed at teens.

I don't know about anyone else, but even though I'm English myself, I find it incredibly difficult to watch most 'serious' shows (or movies for that matter) where they majority of accents are British. I find it incredibly off-putting. Not sure why that is. There's also something about the way they're shot - be it a movie or a TV show, they frequently have a tendency to look and sound more like a soap.

Of course, there's also what I perceive to be a distinct lack of quality in most British shows. If it isn't yet another tiresome 'period drama' so that BBC/ITV can get value from their vast wardrobes of Ye Olde Style clothing, it's a weak sci-fi effort with pretty poor effects. And of course, every one of those sci-fi shows usually has some element of time travel so that, once again, BBC/ITV can get value from their vast wardrobes of Ye Olde Style clothing - the latest high-profile example of both being the 2012 Dr. Who Christmas Special.

I loved switch will miss it dearly

I do get tears whenever The Fades is mentioned...

That is true actually - I was mostly out with my mates. Things that interested me most on the rare occasions I was home were movies and music shows and occasional US sci-fi. I wasn't really into the whole-season/box-set culture that we seem to have now (hence me liking one shot episode genre shows like TNG and Quantum Leap more than other shows as you could dip in and out of it without losing the plot).

"But it also spelled the end of another homegrown geek series aimed at a young audience, leaving just Misfits to fly the flag in its absence. "

Surely that should be Being Human, which has a new series coming up, whilst we are yet to hear more on Misfits (it's a distinct possibility but the ratings were less than half of those in 2011). But then both of them were down. There is also Bedlam, which although not as huge a series is still churning along on Sky Living with 500k viewers like Bones or Grey's Anatomy.

The bigger recent home-grown genre shows were those that appeared to appeal to an older audience (Secret of Crickley Hall, Marchlands, Red Dwarf) or a younger one (Sinbad, Wizards Vs Aliens). Although this doesn't always work, just looking at the failure of Dirk Gently, Outcasts or Eternal Law. It is curious that the middle-ground seems to have quite a bit of trouble, when a decade ago teens were watching Buffy on BBC2, Stargate on Channel 4 and\or Charmed on Five.

With the success of Saturday Night drama on BBC1, Genre imports like Once Upon A Time (Five), Arrow (Sky 1), Alcatraz (Watch), Vampire Diaries (ITV2) and Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic), and the continued dominance of genre cinema (Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, The Hobbit, Spider-Man, Twilight, Prometheus, The Hunger Games, The Woman In Black etc.), something must come out that will work. Surely...

I agree - I don't understand this obsession with aiming shows at a certain demographic, or assuming teenagers will only watch TV shows with characters their own age in. When I was a teenager, I used to watch stuff like Bottom, Men Behaving Badly, The X Files, This Life, Have I Got News For You, none of which had anything to do with anyone younger than their mid-twenties!

I seem to remember hearing that one of the most popular TV shows with a teenage audience is the decidedly uncool QI. I think that says it all.

That was back in a 4/5 channel world in the UK. Now, with digital, the increased number of channels means more competition and channels with niche demographics in mind. Is it possibly this new model that's to blame?

The Fades, back in the day, would be 9pm on BBC 2 and would probably have got a second series because BBC 2 wasn't aimed at a certain age-group (I assume, I don't know for sure that TV didn't work like that in the Nineties, but I don't think it did).

I regularly watch shows that are deemed 'too old' for me, and I also watch things that are considered too 'young' for me. As is said above, I don't care about what demographic it's meant to appeal to, just whether it's decent television.

I, admittedly, go to a 'geek' school, but even then, I find QI's popular with a lot of people I know. It's easy to understand, fun, and always interesting.

Another show that I've found probably reached past its 'target demographic' was Miranda, but rather than pull the rug out from under it, the BBC invested more money in it, and moved it from BBC2 to BBC1, for which I will always be eternally grateful.

I've found the same. Secrets of Crickley Hall and Red Dwarf are surprisingly popular.

I've found that a lot of the time, with the few exceptions (mainly the Inbetweeners, and Some Girls), my friends and I tend to turn in disgust at shows aimed solely at teenagers (and I think those two are so popular because they're so different from our lives).

BBC1 was supposed to be mainstream, BBC2 more arty and alternative so 2 was the channel for any teen programming - but it had a certain timeslot.

The Fades, in the early 90s, would more likely have been on Channel 4.

I think it's a shame it wasn't on Channel 4 or one of its digital channels. It might have thrived there. On BBC 2 it probably would have been in the Buffy timeslot.

The thought occurs to me that it could, with some changes, have been on CBBC in the Nineties.

snog marry avoid is at times very funny car crash tv

Teen tv has a problem in that fades the hero was a bed wetter and had a mental health problem two attributes the thing probably didnt help but somebody thought it needed at the bbc.

Being that 'mental' to such an extent is not something even the derogatory big bang theory would stoop to.

Switch was on at 21:00 ish if memory served, hardly primetime like buffy was.

I also think CBBC's Wolfblood is worthy of mentioning here as a great show 'for kids' that can be enjoyed by a wider audience - for some reason it is rarely mentioned on DoG (if at all, come to think of it), which I always find a shame.

Switch was bad. The first episode showed promise but then it went for comedy that just crossed the line into ridiculous-ville and any enemies that started off quite threatening ended up being stupid and cartoonish. Charmed may have ran for 8 seasons, but it waited till about season 5 before it got quite that stupid and by then the hardcore fans were so hardcore that they'd put up with anything.

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