Why funky youth news fails

 

Here’s a surprising statistic about Newsround, the BBC’s news programme for children: almost half its viewers are aged over 45 – and a fifth are aged over 65.

Only a quarter of Newsround’s audience falls inside its target age group – the under-16s. So what does this say about the news audience? The first thing it says to me is that even adults want clear, simple explanations of the day’s major stories.

The second thing it says to me is that teenagers and young adults are generally not big fans of news, even in its most accessible juvenile format.

So how can we encourage more young people to watch the news? The ageing profile of television news viewers is a perennial poser for editors and executives alike. It’s a dilemma that agitates the establishment and politicians in particular.

The argument goes: if young people watch the news, then they’ll learn about the world they live in, connect with issues of the day and hopefully re-engage with politics and vote.

Advertisers also want young people to watch news – particularly young people with expendable income. They are the key audience when selling new products.

Advertisers pay a lot more money for youthful, upmarket eyeballs than they do for ageing downmarket ones. For all these reasons, television news executives would like more young people to watch the news.

So what is the current situation? First, let’s take a generous definition of the term “young” – say anyone aged between 16 and 34 years.

Let’s now look at the Six O’Clock News on the BBC, News at Ten on ITV and Five News.

Eighty-three per cent of the Six O’Clock News’s audience is over the age of 34; 78 per cent of News at Ten viewers are aged over 34, and 82 per cent of Five News viewers are 34 or older. Taken overall, only 14 per cent of television news viewers are aged between 16 and 34, which is rather pathetic.

So what have the news programme makers been doing to improve their appeal to younger viewers ? I can tell you what we have tried to do with Five News over the past six years or so.

We began by looking at portrayal – news seemed rather middle-aged to me, so when we launched Channel Five we determinedly aimed to recruit young staff on and off screen. Kirsty Young was under 30 when she became our anchor and the average age of our reporters and producers was 28.

It seemed to work – we did have a younger viewing profile when we launched, but the problem was that our overall audience was tiny.

Our research showed that the age of our on-screen staff tended to affect our credibility with certain viewers – especially middle-aged women – but the real problem was the set and the general look of Five News. The average viewer found our relatively funky production style rather “distracting” and “off-putting”.

In fact, at Five we’ve found that as the programme became more conventional, our audience got larger but relatively older. It was a trade-off we reluctantly had to accept.

Channel 4 News, BBC News and ITV News have all got a bit funkier in recent years, but the impact on the age profile of their audiences has been negligible.

Agendas have also been sexed up significantly in the past five years.

Five, like other broadcasters, conducted reams of research into the kind of issues that younger viewers respond to. The results were fairly predictable – student loans, popular music, film, sport, fashion, ecological issues, drug laws and other legislation affecting personal freedom.

Again, we aimed to include as much on these subjects as possible without totally skewing the news agenda of the day. However, we didn’t seem to get much credit for it with our younger viewers. Earlier this year, we ran a young version of Five News called The Edit, with twentysomething presenters and an agenda almost entirely aimed at viewers aged under 30. The programme was great, the presenters were engaging and the audience profile was terrific, but the total audience was fewer than 200,000.

Sadly, The Edit could not survive on those figures.

These various experiments were commercially unsustainable and I reluctantly drew the conclusion that the younger news viewer was out there, but not in sufficient numbers to risk alienating our core loyal audience.

The core audience for news stubbornly remains those aged over 50, with more than a third aged 65 or older. They are fundamentally conservative about the way they want their news delivered and about what they believe constitutes proper news.

This does not preclude any change, but it does encourage a degree of caution. It really doesn’t take much to make a news programme look revolutionary.

Newsround isn’t the only news programme dedicated to the interests of younger viewers. The Seven O’Clock News (formerly The News Show) is BBC Three’s attempt at a teen-oriented news programme.

The BBC launched it rather reluctantly after the Government insisted that a news ingredient was required to distinguish and justify the licence-funded BBC Three from its free market commercial rivals E4 and Sky One.

The Seven O’Clock News was marketed as a cross between BBC Choice’s hourly digest 60 Seconds and the critically acclaimed entertainment show Liquid News.

In truth, it’s nowhere near as good as either of those services and it attracts a thoroughly miserable audience of 18,000 viewers – just 0.2 per cent of viewers with access to digital channels. It frequently fails to register on the BARB ratings panel.

To be honest, I am not surprised.

Having chased the elusive young news viewer for most of my professional career, I have one word of advice to those bemoaning the lack of young news fans: relax! If you can’t appeal to the young, then concentrate on the elderly and well-off.

There simply isn’t a great deal that can be done to change the viewing habits of the under-35s. They watch what they want to watch.

Those genuinely interested in politics, economics and world affairs are probably quite happy with news the way it is; those who aren’t interested in those topics will avoid news like the plague – no matter how it’s dressed up. Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five.

 

by Chris Shaw

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