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Media Networks Searching for Youth

March 1, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And to explore a point just made, ABC is not the only news organization searching for younger viewers. And it’s a subject Terence Smith had been looking at prior to the Letterman development. Here is his report.

TERENCE SMITH: For years now, newspaper readership has been dwindling nationwide, and the audience for news on television has been fragmenting.

SPOKESMAN: You haven’t seen any more video from Philadelphia, right?

TERENCE SMITH: Most ominously for the long-term future of news organizations, surveys show that people under 35 are reading and watching less traditional news all the time.

SPOKESMAN: Stand by, camera one, Robin.

TERENCE SMITH: To counter this trend, news managers are avidly searching for their version of the fountain of youth.

SPOKESMAN: 15 seconds, guys.

TERENCE SMITH: The quest for 18- to 34-year-olds, prized by advertisers, is so intense that it’s changing the look and content of the newspaper you read and the news you watch.

JACK CURRY, USA Weekend: It is a problem of reinventing the wheel without breaking the car.

TERENCE SMITH: Jack Curry is executive editor of USA Weekend Magazine, which is distributed in 580 newspapers across the country. His mandate: to deliver younger readers.

JACK CURRY: Newspapers, be they in Chicago, be they in Asheville, be they in Honolulu, face the same problem: how do we get this new generation of reader to our publication without completely alienating the people that make up our core business?

TERENCE SMITH: USA Weekend profiles youth icons and gears its stories to younger Americans. Curry says young people are interested in news, just not the news as it’s being delivered.

JACK CURRY: They do care about jobs, they do care about family, they do care about, you know, finance, building a future, but they want to do it with a little attitude. You have to… it’s everything from the way you design the pages, to the authors and bylines you offer them.

TERENCE SMITH: Even when stories appeal to older readers, editors take generation “Y” into consideration.

JACK CURRY: Now, of course, when we have Robert Redford, we make sure that we have Brad Pitt in a sidebar saying why Robert Redford is cool. So you really can edit, so you get it both ways.

SPOKESPERSON: Do you have a phone number and a contact that I can get back to you?

TERENCE SMITH: The search for a younger demographic is even more pronounced at television networks where, in a trend that appears to be accelerating, the Internet is cutting into the young TV audience.

TOM WOLZIEN, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.: More and more young people are spending time online. In fact, a recent study by the University of California indicated that 14-year-olds are watching less television and spending time online instead.

TERENCE SMITH: Tom Wolzien is a senior media analyst for financial investors. He says 18- to 34-year-olds are targeted by print and TV advertisers because they are harder to reach and have not yet developed brand loyalties.

TOM WOLZIEN: The 18- to 34-year-olds are starting households, they are perhaps more impressionable. They are deciding on what type of baby diaper to buy for the first time, they are establishing a household, deciding what type of toothpaste, what type of soap… so advertising there has the potential of establishing a long-term relationship.

TERENCE SMITH: Just how important is that younger group?

TOM WOLZIEN: An advertiser will probably pay at least double, if not triple, to reach young people,18 to 34, than reach people over 55.

TERENCE SMITH: But many young viewers may not get their news from newscasts at all.

ANDREW HEYWARD, president, CBS News: There are people who get their sense of the news from late night comedy shows, from radio, just from the buzz. It is a kind of meta-news, if you will, that is out there that tells them when something big is happening, and then they might turn to a more traditional source.

TERENCE SMITH: Andrew Heyward is president of CBS news. His hope is that younger Americans will eventually find their way to network news.

ANDREW HEYWARD: To some degree, time is on our side in that as you get older, you tend to get more interested in the world around you. When you have a mortgage, when you have kids in school, you care more about tax policy, the economy, certainly education, crime in the neighborhood, and so on. So I think you become more engaged with society as you get older. That makes you more interested in the news. But, having said that, we can’t just sit around and wait.

TERENCE SMITH: As part of media giant Viacom, CBS news has entered partnerships with other Viacom properties that already attract youthful audiences. The news division’s “48 Hours” has done two shows in cooperation with MTV.

SPOKESMAN: Anyone can bring them a pill…

TERENCE SMITH: It hopes to do more. VH-1 pop entertainment stories are regularly distributed to CBS News affiliate stations.

ANDREW HEYWARD: It’s part of your menu of choices. We certainly cannot replace MTV or VH-1 or UPN in the affections of their loyal viewers, nor would we want to, but there is the opportunity for us to become an added feature, when people feel the need for network news.

TERENCE SMITH: CBS News has also offered to assist Viacom’s younger skewing UPN network, and is currently working with BET, Black Entertainment Television, on its revamped late news show. But inside CBS news, efforts to attract younger viewers have met with mixed results. When its “Early Show” was launched two years ago, producers featured younger lifestyle reporters and segments.

ANDREW HEYWARD: It does represent both the potential and the perils of moving aggressively toward younger viewers.

ANCHOR: Welcome to the “Early Show.”

TERENCE SMITH: The show’s new look lost loyal, older watchers and remains a distant third in the morning news race, but with a boost from David Letterman at night and segments on “Survivor”…

SPOKESMAN: Survivors ready…go!

TERENCE SMITH: A hit with younger viewers, the “Early Show’s” ratings are now rising.

ANDREW HEYWARD: The program is much more successful financially than it was, and the audience comp, the percentage of younger viewers has improved. But along the way, in the early going, there is no question that some older and much older viewers deserted us, and we will never know whether there was a way to be a little more gentle here.

TERENCE SMITH: Cable News Networks, whose 24/7 approach may better suit the lifestyles of young Americans, are actively courting them.

ANCHOR: The Pentagon said U.S. forces were fired upon…

TERENCE SMITH: CNN’s headline news was totally revamped in august, expressly to target a young audience. Its creator, Teya Ryan:

TEYA RYAN, CNN: What we looked at were areas that I think this demographic is very interested in, and we made a conscious effort to focus on those areas, which would be environment, sports, business, technology, health, and entertainment culture.

SPOKESPERSON: Local newsbreak coming up for some, and for everybody else, a Britney Spears fix.

TERENCE SMITH: With 17 cameras and a state of the art “in the round” set, it is a multimillion dollar gamble.

ANCHOR: Who was cooking the books at Enron?

TERENCE SMITH: The fast-paced show, with young anchors and screens crowded with information, was soundly panned by critics. But its ratings are up 104 percent among 18- to 34-year-olds.

SONG: Hey, Mr. D.J. put a record on I want to dance…

ANCHOR: You know, the latest in audio technology may just blow you away– that’s sound we’re talking.

TERENCE SMITH: To critics who say headline news panders to the young, Teya Ryan makes no apologies.

TEYA RYAN: It was our own blinders on to say that that was soft news, lifestyle news, versus that’s where this audience actually lives. That’s what they’re interested in, that is what they’ll gravitate to. So, as we hold on to what our old definition of news is, we simply watch this audience fade away as a news audience.

TERENCE SMITH: Headline News viewers only watch for an average of 15 minutes at a time.

TEYA RYAN: They can dip in, they can dip out, all throughout the day, get what they want and move on with their lives.

TERENCE SMITH: The show’s dizzying pace and changing data are, the young anchors say, what their generation expects.

ROBIN MEADE, CNN Headline News: You’re coming from a generation that kind of grew up between eighth grade and twelfth grade watching MTV. That was the new thing. It seemed so fast-paced. Now that seems like a regular pace type of thing. You can tell by the speed at which I talk that life is kind of fast for me.

KRIS OSBORN, CNN Headline News: There are people that like to multi-task. I like to do a number of different things, whether I’m running on the treadmill, or I want to put the sound down, or I want to read different information or look down at the graphics.

TERENCE SMITH: More traditional news shows are co-opting headline news’ “crawls” and graphics, and mainstream media’s efforts to attract an Internet- based generation will inevitably give all news a different look. The transformation, says Jack Curry, has already begun.

JACK CURRY: There is color on the front page. The idea that there are stories about women and men and how they relate on the front pages of newspapers. The fact that Mariah Carey’s music deal was on the front page on the New York Times, these are not stories that would have occurred 25 years ago.

TERENCE SMITH: What news organizations must do now, he says, is make generation “Y” aware of what the news media has for them.

JACK CURRY: If you build it and promote it, they will come.

TERENCE SMITH: Perhaps. But the question remains whether traditional news organizations can move fast enough to capture the Internet generation.