Tween and Mean

Nick and Disney slug it out to score with the lucrative 9-14 demographic

Sesame Street is preschool. MTV caters to teens. So what happens to that large, lucrative demo in between? Tweens, kids 9-14, are a distinct TV audience: Boys like anime; girls dig live-action comedy. And they both love broadcast reality and big animated shows, like Nick's Fairly OddParents and SpongeBob SquarePants. Which makes them prime targets for TV programmers and advertisers.

To catch the wave, Cartoon Network moved its tween-oriented anime block Toonami on April 17 from weekday afternoons to Saturday nights to lure more boys. In June, the Disney Channel will introduce its latest live-action show: Phil of the Future.This fall, Nickelodeon will relaunch its Teen Nick block with at least two new live-action comedies. Nick also has a spinoff cable channel, The N, for tweens and teens that enjoys 30 million subscribers.

If the term sounds slightly contrived, it is. The "tween" demo is an invention of modern marketing. The term popped into the Zeitgeist as advertisers homed in on those critical gap years between kids and teen consumers. But, at 25 million strong, tweens are a sizable and influential market. "Tweens are more than a demographic pit stop on the way out of childhood to teendom," says Betsy Frank, MTV Networks research chief.

They are a kid-size media empire.

The U.S. Tween Market, a 2003 research report published by Packaged Facts, posited the spending power of this cohort at $39 billion. More than half of tweens get an allowance, and 75% have pocket money from gifts or odd jobs, according to MTVN research.

Non-kid advertisers—videogame makers, movie studios, apparel, snack foods—are thrilled. "There is a business here," says media buyer Shelly Hirsch, CEO of the Summit Media Group. "Tweens think they are too old for the toy store." (Advertisers can't buy spots on Disney Channel, which takes only PBS-style sponsorships.)

"In many ways, tweens are the perfect consumer," said Don Montuori, acquisitions editor of Packaged Facts, when the report was published. "Their spending is enthusiastic," and they influence household spending.

Still, programming for this demo is tough. It's a complex age group. What a 9-year-old boy watches on TV and buys at the mall is radically different from what his 13-year-old sister craves.

The solution, says Disney Channel Entertainment President Rich Ross, is making shows for 9- to 11-year-olds, but picking older stars—as in LizzieMcGuire and Raven—to create aspirations. The goal is to play across demo—and the proof is in the ratings. In the first quarter, both shows ranked in the top 10 for girl tweens, alongside American Idol and Survivor. "Our stories are comprehensible, address family dynamics and fitting in," Ross says. "That doesn't change for a 9-year-old or a 12-year-old." The same is true for animated series like Proud Family and Kim Possible.

In chasing tweens, Disney and its cable rivals, Nick and Cartoon, face stiff competition from broadcast TV. And we're not talking Saturday-morning cartoons. Reality shows like Fox's American Idol and CBS's Survivor attract some of the largest tween audiences. Even smaller shows like UPN's America's Next Top Modelscore with the demo.

"Tweens didn't like the sitcoms the broadcasters were putting on," Hirsch explains, "but, when reality came on, they found something they could relate to."

Cable networks took the hint. There are now Trading Spaces knockoffs for kids: Knock First on ABC Family and Discovery Kids'Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls.

The major kids channels aren't rushing to reality. Disney Channel will encore the first season of its old reality show Bug Juicethis summer. But the trouble with reality, cautions Cartoon Network GM Jim Samples, is "it often burns hot and flames out." With a 24/7 schedule, kids networks need programming with a long shelf life. Animation and live action are more reliable formats.

Which is why Cartoon caters more to boys and favors animation. As they grow into tweens, boys take their TV habits with them, tuning into anime, Pokémon and Dragon Ball, and sports, which is a boon to the network. Adult Swim animation and Justice League also score with tweens.

Disney and Nick are angling for boys, too. Disney's Phil of the Future will have a boy lead, a first for Disney's live action. Its current live-action hits, Lizzie McGuireand That's So Raven, have boy characters, but the girls—Hillary Duff and Raven Simone—are the stars.

Nick also targets dual appeal. "One of Nick's trademarks is a gender-balanced audience," says President Cyma Zarghami. "It contributes to our success." Nick's current live-action shows Romeo and Drake & Josh have boy stars and draw a balanced 50-50 audience, she notes.

She's hoping for similar results with upcoming Teen Nick shows Unfabulous, starring Julia Roberts' niece Emma Roberts as a preteen with growing pains, and Ned's Declassified School SurvivalGuide,for middle-school kids.

Cartoon isn't taking the live-action plunge, but all networks face the same reality: the differences between tween boys and girls. TV-wise, tween girls are more particular. They'll watch animation, reality, or live action—until they hit on a favorite. When they do, watch out. Loyal girls made Lizzie McGuire a multimedia sensation, with a hit series, theatrical movie, books, and records. Disney's second effort, That's So Raven, is turning into a similar cottage industry.

Looking for the next Lizzie? It could be Britney Spears' little sister, Jamie. Spears will star in a Nickelodeon live-action comedy as a girl infiltrating a boy's school. Nick is also developing The Power Strikers, about a girls soccer team.

"People are willing to invest in this group," says Frank. It's called sound business.