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New Cable Channels Try To Lure Millennials Back To TV


OK, three brand-new cable channels all share the same problem. How do you persuade 20-somethings to look up from their phones long enough to gaze at an old-fashioned, regular TV? In Los Angeles, NPR's Neda Ulaby visited one of the channels that's trying to do that.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This could be the set of any cable news show about to go live.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Three minutes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: As character) We've got three minutes to air.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: As character) Holy wow.

ULABY: The show is called "Take Part Live." The channel is called Pivot. It's going for a super-specific audience, socially conscious people born after 1980 and before 2001, the generation known as millennials. To lure them, this new show is trying very hard to be funny.


ULABY: OK. So it's kind of going for a "Daily Show, Jr." vibe. Kent Reese runs Pivot's scheduling and marketing. They're trying to sell TV ads to the biggest generational group in the country. By some counts, millennials outnumber baby boomers. Pivot thinks it can reach up to 30 million of them who care about politics and social issues.

So it signed up people like John McCain's daughter, Megan McCain, with a conservative-tipping talk show. And it's experimenting with research about how millennials watch TV.

KENT REESE: We know that our audience is really into binge-watching. So they'll watch multiple episodes in a row. And so the night that the network launched, we aired all six episodes of Josh's show - all in a row.

ULABY: Josh is Josh Thomas. He's 26, and Australian.


ULABY: Pivot bought the rights to air a comedy series he created, called "Please Like Me." It's often described as a gay, Australian version of "Girls," the show on HBO. It's about an awkward 20-something who, like so many millennials, still lives with his mom.


ULABY: Maybe you're thinking that binge-watching or "Daily Show" knock-offs aren't unique to millennials. But for Pivot to air six episodes in a row as its very first move was, says Reese, a statement.

REESE: This is what this audience wants. This is our opportunity, through our programming, to express back to them that we get it, and that we are listening; and that we want them to consume content from us in the same way they're doing it in other places.

DAVID THORBURN: The question is whether those demographics have moved beyond television.

ULABY: Professor David Thorburn studies media in transition. He teaches at MIT. I wondered if he thought his students, who fall completely into Pivot's dream demographic, will watch it.

THORBURN: No, I don't think so.

ULABY: His students tend not to have TVs. They don't pay for cable. They watch Netflix on their phones, or stream shows on sites that aren't completely legit. But when it comes to ads on television, there's no audience more desirable than millennials, so these new channels are trying to divide them up.

Pivot's going for the green, socially conscious crowd. Univision wants the young, English-speaking Latinos, so it's starting a channel called Fusion, later this month. One for music lovers, called Revolt, launches today. When you look it up online, it's clear Revolt is angling to become the second coming of MTV. But MTV-style music videos strike David Thorburn as...

THORBURN: Very old-fashioned. Is this really a time when today's younger people will tune into an MTV?

ULABY: I mean, they've got YouTube, right? Wrong, says Val Boreland. She's in charge of Revolt's programming. She insists millennials in the year 2013 still need their MTV, sort of.

VAL BORELAND: We don't use the word VJ 'cause that's old-school. But we will have VJ equivalents.

ULABY: Oh, so that's completely new. Still, Revolt's Twitter account is more or less a digital VJ. It's hyped the musician Lorde since June.


BORELAND: Now, she's just breaking. We are going to break those people.

ULABY: Revolt was founded by Sean Combs. He's so famous as a rapper and mogul, his team was worried that would inflate expectations for the channel. So it did something increasingly common - starting not on TV, but with videos posted on Twitter and Instagram.

BORELAND: We haven't done any marketing, and we have a successful social media platform.

ULABY: Propping up old technology with new technology is, says Professor David Thorburn, a bit of a paradox.

THORBURN: Maybe they should just look to the new technologies, and stop pretending that the older one will be helpful to them.

ULABY: But to do that, they'd have to ignore something else - that nothing ka-chings like ads on TV.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.