Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Broadcasters need to be smart to hook Gen Z viewers

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

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For Broadcast June 30, 2023

The challenge is not only to come up with relevant content, but to find new ways to ensure it reaches the target audience

We need to talk about Gen Z. Today’s 13 to 24 year-olds, who have grown up on social media, are key for producers and advertisers alike, but they represent a demographic that the TV industry is still getting to grips with. What does Gen Z want, especially in their news and factual content? And crucially, how will they find and consume the content the industry is producing?

As the broadcaster with a specifically youth remit, Channel 4 is the most vulnerable to how Gen Z will ‘tune into TV’ over the next five to 10 years, so it’s no surprise that it has commissioned a report, Beyond Z: The Real Truth About British Youth, which came out in February.

The headline is that Gen Z is a complex generation shaped by societal upheavals including Brexit, the pandemic, climate change, economic uncertainty and war in Europe. There are 8 million Gen Z in the UK today. They are more ethnically diverse than prior generations and, interestingly, they do not want to be considered using traditional gender and ethnic tick boxes. Welcome to the age of who we are, not what we are.

Not only is Gen Z digitally native, but their lives have been shaped and reshaped by social media and identity politics. Tik Tok and Insta are part of the wallpaper of their lives. Social media is a tool to converse and give opinions, and yet they also know it can be toxic and lead to issues over body image and belonging.

The digital world they live in is dynamic and, according to the report, “smashes and rebuilds the order of culture and society at an ever-accelerating rate” – which is perhaps why this generation is so concerned about mental health and, at the same time, largely intolerant of opinions with which they don’t agree. Indeed, according to the report, nearly half think that “some people deserve to be cancelled”.

That’s quite a mash-up of ideas, but it’s important to grasp the implications. If content platforms and broadcasters want to catch the attention of this rising cohort, then they must wade in.

As C4 chief executive Alex Mahon told the audience at the Media and Telecoms 2023 & Beyond conference in May: “We have to challenge [Gen Z] but not pander to them.

“While this is television with public purpose, it’s not ‘eat your peas’ TV. We make shows they want to watch – like It’s A Sin or Consent – because they’re entertaining and frequently fun, whatever other merits they possess.”

“It will take good ideas, smart investments in talent and stories that matter, plus shrewd distribution deals and content tagging”

You can see this approach in stories like the double Bafta-winning C4 drama I Am Ruth, which stars Kate Winslet as a mother struggling with her daughter’s depression in a social media age, with its combination of top name talent and a Gen Z-relevant topic.

But once you’ve answered the question of what content to make, there’s the challenge of ensuring it’s discovered and delivered to younger audiences. All broadcasters have now adopted some sort of streaming TV model and created content for social platforms, but they are still at the mercy of algorithms, which affect how discoverable the content will be.

“Those algorithms may be innocent or malign, but of one thing we can be pretty sure: they are not written for the benefit of young British people and the challenges they face; they have no allegiance to truth or honesty,” said Mahon.

When it comes to improving discoverability and the associated personalisation of services, the legacy TV business will find it difficult to keep up with the digital giants like Google and Amazon in the coming years.

It will take good ideas, smart investments in talent and stories that matter, plus shrewd distribution deals and content tagging to make sure that UK content – especially coming from the PSBs – survives, thrives and serves the youngest generation effectively.

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Kate Bulkley