People ages 7 TO 29, such as Cole Chanin-Hassman, 10, seen with his mom, Jeannine… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)
Hollywood has a problem. He's Cole Chanin-Hassman, and he's 10.
Like many other kids his age, the Los Angeles fourth-grader counts among his entertainment tools his Xbox 360 game console, his Android phone and his computer.
The television is almost an afterthought. When Cole comes home from school, he turns on Cartoon Network's "Regular Show," but the characters on the TV screen compete for his attention with the world-building game "Minecraft" and a parade of YouTube videos on his computer.
"Sometimes, I'll kind of lift my head up a little bit and watch," Cole said. "But usually I'm just kind of listening to [the TV] and playing on my computer."
Cole's habits illustrate the enormous challenges that confront television networks fighting to remain viable and profitable in the digital age. They're losing viewers, and they know it.
In response, some cable channels are introducing shorter episodes to reach multi-tasking kids with shorter attention spans. They're bulking up online content to feed the ravenous appetites of younger users. And they're listening to social media conversations about their shows — in some cases even changing plot lines to suit audience tastes.
"The networks ... are all struggling with younger people," said Neil Howe, an authority on generations and president of the consulting firm LifeCourse Associates. "The big danger is whether [networks] will become gradually less relevant" and disappear from younger viewers' screens altogether.
America's 67 million baby boomers once commanded advertisers' attention because of their spending power and sheer number. But the prized demographic is now the millennial generation: the 98 million people ages 7 to 29. These digital natives represent nearly one-third of the U.S. population, and they're proving an elusive target for networks and advertisers to reach.
Viewers of all ages are recording TV shows and fast-forwarding through commercials. But the practice is almost reflexive for millennials: About 41% watch shows recorded earlier on their DVRs, according to a study from Boston Consulting Group and ad agency Barkley.
Millennials still watch television shows, but not always the old-fashioned way: lounging on a couch, remote control in hand, surfing through the channels. Increasingly, they're streaming episodes on their computers, or fetching shows delivered to the TV set via game consoles or other Internet-connected devices, according to a survey by youth research firm Ypulse. This disrupts the decades-old methods advertisers have relied on to reach consumers.
"One of the biggest reasons that online streaming of TV shows in particular has taken off like crazy is that networks are finally embracing the fact that this is where their audience is," said Melanie Shreffler, Ypulse editor in chief.
Younger viewers are avid fans. But networks are having trouble adapting to their fickle viewing habits.
Television networks such as the CW are at the nexus of the forces reshaping the entertainment industry. Launched six years ago, the CW initially approached its audience like any other television network — expecting viewers to tune in at appointed times to watch its shows.
They didn't. Instead they began watching episodes online, through illicit pirate sites. So the CW began offering such shows as "Gossip Girl" and "The Vampire Diaries" on the Internet within hours of an episode's TV airing. A new mobile application allows viewing on iPhones, iPads and Android and Kindle devices.
"This millennial generation is the 'I know what I want, when I want it and
how I want it,'" said Rick Haskins, the CW's executive vice president of marketing and digital programs. "You need to supply them the product, however they want to consume it."
Digital now accounts for 18% of the network's total viewing — a rate that has doubled within a year, Haskins said. The network's research found that 93% of viewers who streamed episodes had not watched them on TV — expanding the audience for its shows. The CW also worked with Nielsen and Google to provide demographic information about mobile audiences to make this audience more attractive to advertisers.
But meeting viewers on their own terms can be fraught with peril.
Nickelodeon saw its ratings drop this season by about 25% compared with last season. The plunge came after the network made more episodes of "SpongeBob SquarePants," "iCarly" and other shows available through Netflix so young children could watch old episodes through their game consoles and other Internet-connected devices.
Top Viacom executives attributed the decline to several factors, including the difficulty of accurately measuring young viewers' behavior on so many screens. Nickelodeon is responding by rolling out 650 new episodes of programming in the upcoming season to woo back viewers.