In 2007, the UK media regulator Ofcom published an extensive report entitled The Future of Children’s Television Programming. The report was partly a response to growing concerns about the threats to specialized children’s programming posed by the advent of a more commercialized and globalised media environment. However, it argued that the impact of these developments was crucially dependent upon the age group. Programming for pre-schoolers and younger children was found to be faring fairly well, although there were concerns about the range and diversity of programming, and the fate of UK domestic production in particular. Nevertheless, the impact was more significant for older children, and particularly for teenagers. The report was not optimistic about the future provision of specialist programming for these age groups, particularly in the case of factual programmes and UK-produced original drama.
The problems here were partly a consequence of the changing economy of the television industry, and partly of the changing behaviour of young people themselves. As the report suggested, there has always been less specialized television provided for younger teenagers, who tend to watch what it called ‘aspirational’ programming aimed at adults. Particularly in a globalised media market, there may be little money to be made in targeting this age group specifically. Meanwhile, the report also noted a dramatic change in young people’s media consumption habits: while television remained popular, use of the internet had significantly increased. Mobile phones had overtaken television as the medium 12-15-year olds would miss the most, and the internet was not far behind. As far as television was concerned, younger teenagers could be seen as an instance of ‘market failure’, where market forces alone would not adequately provide.
Ofcom’s opinion surveys found that teenagers and their parents expressed a desire for specialized programming aimed at them – and particularly for UK-produced ‘public service’ television, rather than US programmes. However, this was not just a matter of consumers’ opinions and ‘desires’. The report is implicitly informed by a widely-held normative view, that young people somehow need television that does not just entertain, but also educates and informs them – television that is in some way ‘good for them’. They are also seen to need programming that reflects their everyday experiences of life in the UK. These needs, the report assumes, are less likely to be met in a globalised, US-dominated television market.
Perhaps ironically, 2007 also saw the launch of Skins, which was to become one of the most successful and longest-running British youth TV dramas of all time. The series was not entirely unprecedented: the UK school drama Grange Hill (1978-2008) and the teen-oriented soap Hollyoaks (1995-) – both created by the maverick producer Phil Redmond – had successfully targeted children and youth audiences for many years. There had been a short-lived flurry of factual youth programming in the 1980s and 1990s, mostly in entertainment ‘magazine’ formats. However, by the mid-2000s, almost all the teen dramas on British screens were from the US: following in the wake of long-running shows like Beverly Hills 90210 (1990-2000), series like Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and The O.C. (2003-2007) were immensely popular among UK teen viewers. UK teen dramas of the period – such as the BBC’s As If (2001-2004) and Channel 4’s Sugar Rush (2005-2006) – had been less successful. However, Skins was an immediate critical and ratings hit. Some episodes peaked at 1.5 million viewers, and the programme went on to win several Royal Television Society and BAFTA awards. It ran until 2013, and was also (unusually) adapted for US television by MTV, where it ran for a single season before being scrapped, for reasons that will be explored in due course.
Skins was an ensemble drama whose interwoven narratives focused on the lives of a group of 16-18-year olds attending a sixth form college in Bristol, in the west of England. It eventually ran for six seasons of around eight to ten episodes, with a shorter final season, which caught up on some of the earlier characters, now in their early twenties. Each season followed a group of seven or eight main characters, each of whom was typically the main focus of a single episode. At the end of the young people’s two years at college, the main characters were replaced by a new ‘generation’: seasons one and two are therefore referred to as ‘generation one’, seasons three and four as ‘generation two’, and so on. Skins is often described as an ‘iconic’ programme, that somehow defined the ‘zeitgeist’ – and as one that initiated a new era in television for young people. Along with the highly successful sitcom The Inbetweeners (2008-2010), it paved the way for a new generation of British youth drama, including series like Being Human and Misfits (both 2009-2013), although none of these enjoyed the success of Skins.
Skins arrived at a moment of historical change in British broadcasting, and in patterns of young people’s media use. More arguably, it also reflected a wider process of change in the lives of young people themselves – a sense of growing instability and uncertainty that some have seen as characteristic of the ‘precarious generation’. It appeared to offer a youth-centered perspective, marginalizing teachers and parents, and avoiding obvious moral lessons. It treated risky aspects of teenage life – sex, drugs, violence, and the wild pursuit of pleasure – as largely taken-for-granted, everyday realities. As such, it actively courted both youth appeal and adult controversy.
As we’ll see, the success of Skins casts an interesting light on the concerns raised in the Ofcom report. It was by no means children’s television, of course; although its audience was much wider than the age group it depicted, and definitely included younger teens. To some extent, it defined itself in opposition to the glossy, somewhat bland world of the US teen dramas, and hence as distinctively ‘British’. It was broadcast by Channel Four and initially aired on its ‘youth’ channels E4 and T4; and to some extent, it fulfilled a key aspect of the channel’s original public service remit, to reach minority audiences (including young people). Despite the controversy that sometimes surrounded it, Skins would seem to represent many of the qualities that the regulator regarded as desirable. Yet in all these respects, Skins also raises some broader questions about the nature – and indeed the very possibility – of ‘youth television’ itself.
The impossibility of ‘youth television’?
In her influential study of J.M. Barrie’s children’s story Peter Pan, Jacqueline Rose points to some fundamental contradictions at the heart of children’s literature. As she points out, children’s literature is not produced by children, but for them. It is ‘impossible’, not in the literal sense that it cannot be produced, but because it is premised on a difference between writer and addressee that cannot be overcome. Children’s literature, Rose argues, ‘sets up the child as an outsider to its own process, and then aims, unashamedly, to take the child in.’ In this sense, the texts which adults produce for children represent adult constructions, both of childhood and (by implication) of adulthood itself. They are one of the means by which ‘we’ attempt to regulate our relationships with ‘them’ – and perhaps also our relationships with those ‘childlike’ aspects of our own identities. As such, children’s literature should be read, not so much as a reflection of children’s interests or fantasies or desires, but of adults’. As well as asking what children want or need from the text, we need to analyse what it is that adults, through the text, want or demand of the child.
Patricia Holland extends this analysis to media representations of, and for, children. She sees these representations of childhood as part of a continuous effort on the part of adults to gain control over childhood and its implications – not only over actual children, but also over our own childhoods, which we are constantly mourning and constantly reinventing. The idea of childhood serves as a repository for qualities which adults regard both as precious and as problematic – qualities which they cannot tolerate as part of themselves; yet it can also a serve as a dream world into which we can retreat from the pressures and responsibilities of maturity.
I’ve applied these ideas elsewhere in analysing children’s television; but similar points can be made about literature and other media aimed at youth. The idea of youth itself is inherently unstable. It implies an in-between stage, a period of transition in the progress from childhood to adulthood. It is defined as much by what it is not as by what it is: youth no longer possess the charming innocence of children, yet they are often denied the ‘maturity’ of adulthood, and the privileges that accompany it. Youth, like childhood, is often a focus of adult projections, fears and desires. As we’ve seen in several of the previous essays in this series, youth are often represented as a problem to be solved, an inchoate force in need of discipline and control. And yet equally, they are often used as a vehicle for adult fantasies of energy, creativity and freedom.
This has complex and ambivalent implications for ‘youth television’. Youth programmes are largely produced by adults – although, as in the case of Skins, they do sometimes involve young people, not only as actors but also as writers and advisers. The audience for such programmes is often broad and loosely defined. The marketing of youth media – of computer games or rock music, for example – increasingly seems to reflect a broadening of the youth demographic. There is a sense that ‘youthfulness’ is something that can be invoked, packaged and sold to people who are not by any stretch of the imagination any longer youthful. On the other hand, there is also the element that Ofcom describes as ‘aspirational’ consumption: from the very early years of television, children have always watched more ‘adult’ programmes than children’s programmes. The popularity of teen programming may equally speak to childish fantasies of a future in which they will enjoy much greater power and freedom from adult control.
As such, the intended – and indeed the actual – audience of youth television is not always as self-evident as one might expect. Regulatory bodies like Ofcom tend to draw the line at sixteen, while broadcasters and market researchers work with shifting categories that may go up to the age of 24, or even 34. In the case of Skins, the characters are mostly aged sixteen or seventeen; yet the DVDs carry an 18 certificate, and the scheduling of the programme (at 10 pm.) purportedly placed it outside ‘family viewing’ time. Ratings for the series suggest that just over half the audience was aged 16-24; but by the same token, almost half of it was not.
Young people are a potentially lucrative market, but they are also notoriously hard to reach. As the Ofcom report suggests, the younger audience is increasingly abandoning broadcast television in favour of various forms of streaming, downloading and online viewing (both legal and illegal) – a trend that massively increased during the lifetime of Skins. As we’ll see, the producers worked hard to capitalize on these developments, but managing viewers’ engagement and participation on online platforms can be difficult and problematic. Youth are often considered to be a ‘fickle’ audience, or (more positively) a highly ‘media literate’ one. While this can undoubtedly be overstated, there are countless instances where producers just get it wrong: they underestimate the sophistication (or perhaps just the cynicism) of young viewers; they misread trends and fashions in youth culture; they preach and patronize, imposing heavy-handed moral lessons.
This difficulty in reaching the youth audience partly accounts for the uneven history of youth television, and (despite successes like Skins), it has arguably intensified in the digital age. The period considered here is littered with failed initiatives: the BBC launched and then abandoned Switch, a teen brand that lasted just three years (2007-2010); while its youth-oriented channel BBC3 was eventually replaced in 2016 by an internet-only service. Meanwhile, YouTube in particular has grown to become young people’s main source of moving image media, with its own economy and star system of youthful ‘influencers’. Over the longer term, Skins may come to be seen not as the start of a new golden age of British youth television, but as the triumphant last gasp of an outdated system.