Oh, to be 14 again! Twenty-somethings tune in for tween TV

Oh, to be 14 again! Twenty-somethings tune in for tween TV

Jessica Kirshner
Columbia News Service
Mar. 11, 2004 11:59 AM

For many of today’s twenty-somethings, cable television provides an escape from fears of an uncertain future. Young adults are flocking to “The N” — an MTV affiliate that airs “tween” programming exclusively — retreating back to junior high and revisiting the days when wearing the wrong brand of jeans was social suicide and failing a math quiz brought on personal ruin.

Neha Modi, 21, gossips freely about the fictional 14-year-olds of Degrassi Community School. The Boston University business student pines for Degrassi’s hunky heartthrob, scorns its resident goody-two-shoes and brands the high school harlot with a scarlet “S” — school slut. Every week, this witty, well-coiffed student body confronts high-school heartbreak on cable television’s “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” a Canadian series designed for “tweens” — young people between the ages of 12 and 15.

“I know it’s kind of weird, when all is said and done, that a 21-year-old watches shows that involve kids in junior high,” Modi says, “but it captures my attention so much more than other shows.”

The native Californian is part of a growing contingent of American twenty-somethings who have found their way through cable television to “The N,” an MTV affiliate that says it aims “to be the authentic voice of tweens and teens and to help them figure out their lives.”

By day, the network goes by the name “Noggin” and airs programming designed for preschoolers. But at 6 p.m. daily, Noggin assumes its edgier alter-ego and becomes “The N” until 6 a.m., when the Sesame Street gang invades the airwaves once again.

The N provides 38 million digital cable and satellite subscribers with commercial-free teen programming and operates on a tight budget, says Sarah Tomassi-Lindman, vice president for production and programming. In place of advertising income, The N collects fees from cable providers for each home that receives the network.

“We’re always picturing a 15-year-old,” says Tomassi-Lindman of the network’s target market, adding, “Younger kids will watch up, but kids tend not to watch down.” For twenty-somethings, however, “watching up” is getting scary. Caught in the gap between “Generation X” and the tween explosion, many young adults have opted to “watch down” on The N.

As NBC’s “Friends” tackles issues of infertility and adoption, and HBO’s “Sex and the City” girls cope with babies and breast cancer in their final seasons, the lifestyles foretold on-screen for the imminent futures of twenty-somethings have started to seem less glamorous and appealing. For the MTV generation, facing a failing economy and the worst job market in decades, the real world doesn’t seem to be looking much brighter.

For many, The N serves as an overnight escape; a retreat back to junior high, back to the days when wearing the wrong brand of jeans was social suicide and failing a math quiz brought on personal ruin.

“I think everyone is forced to mature faster than they’re ready, and then aren’t really prepared for real life because it comes sooner than we’re ready for it,” says Aron Estaver, 23, a Vanderbilt University law student who has been hooked on The N since it acquired “Daria,” MTV’s wry, animated series about an angst-ridden teenage misfit.

Watching shows about tweens, Estaver says, “saves us from having to grow up and deal with all the new problems that we face as we get older.”

U.S. Census Department reports confirm that today’s twenty-somethings are dragging youth out longer than their baby boomer parents did. The number of 18- to 24-year-old Americans living with their parents has more than doubled since 1960, and the median age of marriage has increased by roughly five years.

While “Degrassi: The Next Generation” — a 21st century update of the popular series that ran on PBS from 1986 to 1991 — may gain traction with a nostalgic crowd old enough to be familiar with the show, most viewers in their 20s weren’t of age to appreciate the innovative Canadian import in its heyday. Now, under cover of night, they flock to the network with fresh perspectives on the series and on youth, enjoying The N’s other programming with equal verve.

Produced by The N and Toronto-based studio Decode Entertainment, “Radio Free Roscoe” follows four high school freshmen who operate an underground radio station under quirky aliases like “Shady Lane.” Modi calls “Roscoe” her “fun show” — “Degrassi” is “serious” — and adds, “I’m big on music so the fact that they run an indie radio station is hot to me.”

Modi says she connects with the kids of “Degrassi” and “Roscoe,” but is embarrassed to admit that part of The N’s appeal may be the sense of adolescent puppy love its shows instill. She joins the ranks of teen girls smitten with “Degrassi’s” 9th grade heartthrob, Craig. “He reminds me of the guys I’m friends with, the guy who plays guitar and writes songs. I feel like a pedophile saying he’s adorable, but he is.”

Some twenty-somethings are as dedicated to the kids of The N as the network’s core demographic, which, according to Tomassi-Lindman, has contributed to a steady 100 percent ratings growth each year since its inception in 2001.

Mary Pagano, 23, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University, confesses that her “Degrassi” habit has interfered with her personal life in the past. “Not that any grad student has a packed social life,” she says, “but if it came down to going to a movie on a Friday night or watching a new episode of ‘Degrassi: The Next Generation,’ I’d usually choose to stay in.”

Reihan Salam, 24, a Washington-based writer with a penchant for teen “dramedy,” has gone to even greater lengths for a fix. “I recall having had a raging 105 degree fever and leaving my home to go to my office in the middle of the night to watch ‘Radio Free Roscoe’ and ‘Degrassi’ repeats.”

At Decode Entertainment, Jacqueline Nuwame, director of communications, says the studio receives a tremendous amount of fan mail from this older demographic. “It’s coming from older and older viewers, and I’m noticing more and more blogs by people in their 20s,” she says.

While The N will continue to make all programming decisions with a 15-year-old viewer in mind, says Tomassi-Lindman, one recent decision may miss the tween target and hit home with twenty-somethings instead.

The N has acquired “My So-Called Life” — the 1994 cult teen melodrama — and will begin re-airing the series this spring. “We took it into some focus groups, and the kids asked us if it was from the 70s,” says Tomassi-Lindman.

Still, says Estaver, who fell into the target audience for “My So-Called Life” 10 years ago, “I do feel closer to the age group on The N than other shows. Maybe the shows on The N are a way of organizing our own experiences and kind of putting them in some sort of order that makes sense.”

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