Teenage kicks: How E4 captured the teen
TV market Read this and consider: how are e4 seeking to shape a sense of young people’s collective
identity, and why are they shaping this collective identity?
What’s in it for Channel 4?
Channel 4 has had its problems but for younger audiences it is in a league of its own, as the
What are the key characteristics of the audience?
success of series such as Skins and the Inbetweeners proves...
No TV audience is harder to impress than teenagers. Savvy and fickle at the best of times,
they have even more distractions, from Spotify to Wii, in today's fragmented media world.
What's more, when teenagers do watch in this era of iPlayer and “catch-up” viewing, they are
just as likely to click on a laptop rather than turning on the television set at a time decided by
But it would be wrong to think this new generation has given up on television. The teen
genre, in particular, is enjoying a golden age, with a string of quintessentially British
programmes which have won acclaim and a cult following.
These include the sci-fi hit Misfits, about a bunch of Asbo kids doing community service who
have magic powers; the edgy sex-and-drugs drama series Skins, set in Bristol and featuring
Dev Patel before he starred in Slumdog Millionaire; and the hilariously rude teenage boys'
comedy The Inbetweeners.
While the three shows are quite different, each made by a different independent production
company, they have a lot in common, too — not least that they have been commissioned by
the same broadcaster, Channel 4, or more specifically its E4 entertainment channel.
C4 may have its problems — it's currently without a chief executive and accused of a creative
drift with soon-to-be-axed Big Brother — but this raft of teen programming stands out as a
success. In contrast, the BBC is having less impact with this demographic, while ITV and Five
Skins, which launched in January 2007, will begin a fourth series later this month. Meanwhile,
The Inbetweeners has been recommissioned after debuting in May 2008, and Misfits, which
only started in November, has already been given a second series.
For C4 head of drama Camilla Campbell, there is a simple formula: “It's about good writing,
good characterisation, good production values. We apply the same levels of quality as we do
to dramas on our main channel.”
Yet as Campbell and director of television Kevin Lygo explain, C4 does go to great lengths to
ensure teen programmes have an authentic, contemporary feel. This ranges from choosing
the right language and clothes on-screen to finding the best music for the soundtrack and
perfecting the advance marketing buzz online. It is essential, says Lygo, because “what they
smell faster than a lot of other audiences is pretension”.
But everything depends on the writing. So it is interesting that all three shows were dreamed
up by older, experienced screenwriters, who grew up on films and books such as The
Breakfast Club, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole.
Skins was devised four years ago by Bryan Elsley, now 48, while Howard Overman, creator of
Misfits, is in his thirties. So are Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, co-writers of The
Of course, the programme-makers also need the input of younger writers, who can point out:
“Ooh, we'd never say that!” In the case of Skins, Elsley was inspired to devise the show by
his son Jamie, then in his teens, and the production team has gone on to set up a “writing
room” to mentor young writers. This bore fruit early on with Daniel Kaluuya, who also acted
in the first two series, writing one episode at 18.
Georgia Lester, 20, is the youngest writer to have penned her own episode in the next series.
Collaborating with young writers helps to ensure storylines are credible. “It is very rooted in
their own experiences,” says Lygo of The Inbetweeners. “I think there is not a single thing
that didn't happen to one of them.”
This quest for authenticity extends to every part of the production process — particularly the
music, for which Skins is famed, such has been its ability to “break” up-and-coming bands.
Alex Hancock, a university friend of Elsley's son, started advising the programme-makers on
the soundtrack and was singled out by NME as the 24th most influential figure to watch in
the UK music industry.
There are other ways to keep the shows looking authentic, says Campbell, such as using
teenage actors rather than the American practice of trying to pass off a 35-year-old as a
teen. For that reason, almost the entire cast of Skins was dropped after the second series
and replaced with younger faces.
C4's most important decision was to push programming which is distinctively British. Part of
the thinking behind commissioning Skins and Misfits was that the teenage audience had been
badly under-served until then with homegrown drama, providing little to watch apart from
glossy soap Hollyoaks, also on C4.
Lygo thinks there is a gritty British
reality and self-deprecating humour which Misfits, Skins and Inbetweeners all share. “We are
a bit more warts-and-all, a bit more angsty than Americans. The OC [set in Los Angeles] was
great but everyone was preposterously beautiful. If the actors were all supermodels [in
British shows], I'm not sure we'd take it.”
Indeed, the characters in Misfits all have slightly shoddy fantasy powers. “You think we're
superheroes?” says one character, knowingly. “Nah, that only happens in America.”
The teenagers I spoke to certainly appreciate this. “It's more real,” said one. “I feel a sort of
national pride,” added another. That is understandable when so much of the other
programming on E4 is US formats (tonight sees the launch of Glee, an edgy new American
high-school series with a musical twist).
Lygo says what is most extraordinary is the impact of the internet on the habits of this new
generation: “We can really gauge how fans like it. These three shows go through the roof on
online viewings and fan chatting. Other Channel 4 shows do OK but there's much less buzz
The ability of viewers to be able to watch on the web — one 14-year-old told me she was too
young to have seen the first series of Skins but watched it all via the C4 website last summer
— has dramatically increased the total audience. Younger viewers are “more selfish about
what they watch and when they want it,” says Lygo.
So a show such as Skins typically gets one million viewers per episode on its first
transmission but reruns and online viewings have trebled that to more than 2.5 million. Much
of the marketing and advertising is aimed online too.
Lygo, Campbell and E4 boss Angela Jain can justly claim that their strike-rate with these teen
shows has been pretty good. “E4 doesn't commission very much,” explains Lygo. “Unlike,
say, BBC3, which would commission 20 times as many shows, there is more riding on each
commission for us so we do think long and hard about each one.” When the BBC tries to woo
teens, adds Lygo, there is a risk that it can be “a bit sober and po-faced”.
But he also sounds a cautious note, pointing out that Skins, Misfits and Inbetweeners “almost
certainly don't make money for the channel at the moment”. Online advertising rates are
lower and there has been limited success so far in selling the programmes overseas.
So Lygo says: “We have to be smarter about how we charge people.” He is keen to introduce
ideas such as micro-payments and “next-epping”, explaining: “If you want to see the next
episode early, you can pay.” Then the episode would air for free a few days or weeks later.
New technology continues to open up astonishing possibilities. Channel 4 recently
commissioned an online TV drama, Brink, made entirely by people who were recruited via the
E4's teenage viewers would expect nothing less.