Saying every generation of teens since the dawn of television has had a place to go to for content made just for them is hyperbole. I know I’m being facetious when I make a grand statement like that, but it’s also something that feels true.
As far back as shows like American Bandstand and Soul Train. From channels like MTV, The WB now The CW, The N, and Freeform. Networks have shaped the television landscape and fed content to adolescents looking to find media not made for children and featuring characters their age. But millennials and older Gen Zs maybe the last TV babies of that era.
When it comes to programming for teens today, it’s the streaming platform Netflix that holds the crown.
This isn’t a coincidence. It’s a marketing ploy. Back in 2016, Brian Wright (then director of original series for family and young-adult programming at Netflix) told Digiday:
Much of premium television today is rated TV-MA. And there’s been limited scripted broadcast television over the past 15 years designed for a broader audience. We are really interested in elevating the YA and family space in TV. If you get it right, you don’t limit yourself to one demo — you can get a broad cross-section of kids, teens and adults.
Netflix is the premier destination for popular teen content
See, prior to Netflix, the majority of teen content was spread out across channels. As a teen viewer, I hopped from network to network. Outside of The N, there was no teen equivalent to Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network. It was as if the adolescent space was deserving of shows and films but not continuous attention with a diversity of content.
So you’d have shows like Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries which grew up with their audience but no show in place on the same network to retain a 13-18 year old demographic. In fact, The CW instead threw their weight behind the Arrowverse, which is not to say that teens don’t watch DC TV, but The CW is no longer a channel with a teen brand despite having teen shows. They’re the superhero channel that happens to have Riverdale and All American on its roster.
Prior to Netflix’s focus on teen programming, there was a vacuum in the market. The majority of successful teen shows had either bowed or their characters aged out of the teen demographic. The landscape was barren which made the streamer’s move to start conquering the world of YA a brilliant one.
The young adult book market has been a booming industry since Twilight skyrocketed to the best-seller’s list and The Hunger Games followed it. The film franchises were wildly successful, but it’s difficult to distill that type of success let alone court it in a show. And yet 13 Reasons Why blew the door wide open for Netflix.
Meghan O’Keefe, in her article for Decider, posits that 13 Reasons Why is not only the catalyst for the streaming platform’s teen boom but also their litmus test. It is O’Keefe’s belief that instead of simply rushing to produce media for their hungry teen audience, the streamer “rethought how best to tell teen stories.”
How graphic would they be? How would they handle depictions and discussions of sexual assault and suicide? As O’Keefe says, Netflix doesn’t mind “profanity, sexuality, or dark content,” but that doesn’t mean they want all their teen shows to deal with heavy topics.
The streamer wants a range of content for its teen viewers. Not everyone is comfortable with Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and rarely does anyone go from watching PG content to MA without transition shows and films dotting the way. That’s where Netflix’s “clean teen” content comes into play.
Naketha Mattocks, the director of family features at Netflix, told The Hollywood Reporter:
We call some of our films ‘clean teen.’ The ones that feature teens that will speak to younger audiences, as well. They are so clean that tweens can watch them, too.
So, you’ll have your younger teen who is into Julie and the Phantoms who may then feel comfortable watching the To All the Boys trilogy, which is a bit more mature but not on the level of The Kissing Booth trilogy.
These degrees of maturity, this sliding scale, is fueled by Netflix’s awareness of their audience. It’s an awareness that has helped boost the popularity of teen shows on network television channels that also stream on the platform. The sustained success of Riverdale and All American is in large part due to the audience they gained through The CW’s deal with Netflix to stream the shows on the platform after the season has aired.
We are living in a binge culture fostered and created by the convenience of Netflix. While that has upset the balance of sustained live viewership, tipped the scales heavily in favor of next day streams, and opened the possibility of low season one ratings that will later be boosted by post-season Netflix views that can have positive season 2 returns, it’s the world we live in.
Which has me wondering if Netflix will be the platform where teen shows come to have a second life. Dare Me, a teen thriller from The USA Network, has been released on the streamer after a single season run that ended in cancellation despite being considered an underrated show.
The series has all the markers of what Netflix looks for in its darker teen dramas. Dare Me is focused on secrets, the viciousness of high school, dismantling the facade of hierarchies, screwed up family situations, and messed up social dynamics. It’s perfect for the platform’s older teen demographic.
Netflix is simply a distributor for the series but given the streamer’s success with teen shows and films, we may one day see the platform save a teen show that has been cast off from their network. They are, after all, conquering the market more and more.
There are currently eight teen shows and films adapted from young adult books either in production or being prepared for release on the platform within the next two years. From the upcoming Moxie to the highly anticipated Shadow and Bone series. Not to mention Netflix originals like Outer Banks season 2 in development and the monthly addition of shows and films from bygone years.
If you were to ask me where to send a teen looking for something to watch, I’d say Netflix. Hands down, no competition. They’ve had a four-year head start in comparison to other streaming platforms.
Disney+ could be a contender one day but as pointed out byIndieWire:
“Netflix’s lack of an internal standards and practices department, AKA the sort of censorship that keeps Nickelodeon and Disney Channel programming relatively squeaky-clean is what makes it more relatable to the under-18 set.”
While Disney’s streaming arm isn’t beholden to a G to PG leash, they’re still figuring out how to navigate their desire to cater to a broader age range whilst dealing with a decades-long branding of being a family-friendly entity.
Netflix doesn’t have that problem and is considered to be for all ages. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one that grants them the ability to have The Witcher and Cocomelon on the same platform without hand-wringing.
It’s also why Netflix has been able to corner the teen market like they have been increasingly so for going on half a decade. As a streaming platform and not a network, Netflix has the freedom to produce and distribute content to a wider audience without the concern of maintaining a specific brand.
They’re the place for darn near everything which means you can drop YA adaptations after YA adaptations on the platform and not worry about alienating adult or child viewers. There can be more than two to three teen shows and films. They all don’t have to have the same aesthetic or tone, and they all don’t have to be Netflix originals, they can be throwbacks.
Netflix isn’t a one-stop shop. You can’t find every piece of teen media, new and old, on the platform, but they’re offering teens more content than they can find on television. Consistent content with no end in sight. It’s affecting the content landscape with more and more buzz-worthy teen programming coming to the platform.
The streamer already changed how we watch shows, moving us away from the traditional structure of appointment television. Now it seems Netflix will decide the future of teen programming since no one else is investing in the 13-18 year old demographic as quickly and determinedly as they are.
If you’re looking for the king of teen programming, it’s Netflix. No contest.