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Some parents happily hooked on tween TV shows

Mon., July 12, 2010

Like any good parent, Karen Moss monitors the content of the television programs viewed by her 8-year-old daughter, Sara. It’s a process that usually plunges poor Mom into a black hole of boredom.

But then one day, the Brentwood, Calif., resident sat down to watch an episode of Nickelodeon’s tween series, “iCarly.” Much to her surprise, she didn’t feel the urge to run screaming from the room.

Now, Moss is a loyal devotee of the show starring Miranda Cosgrove as a girl with her own webcast. Even when Sara is off at a slumber party or otherwise engaged, she’ll occasionally check out “iCarly” on her own.

And, yes, she’s not ashamed to admit that her iPod contains a few episodes.

“It’s funny and smart and safe without being cheesy,” Moss says. “I really enjoy it. Does that make me pathetic?”

Not if you put stock in the numbers. According to Nielsen, “iCarly” is one of several current TV shows aimed at tweens (kids 8-13), but also watched by people who don’t wear braces or use Clearasil.

An “iCarly” special earlier this year (“iSaved Your Life”) drew a remarkable audience of 12.4 million, 2.7 million of whom were adults ages 18-49.

Even “Glee” star Jane Lynch is a fan, giving the show a recent shout-out while reciting her wedding vows.

This kind of “iCarly” love among grown-ups is not a news flash to creator and executive producer Dan Schneider. He says he routinely hears from “older teens, college kids, parents and grandparents” who enjoy the show and are “incredulous” that they do. He insists they shouldn’t be.

“I’ve said from the start that I’m not going to write kiddie sitcoms. I write what I like and just adapt (to the genre),” Schneider says. “So it’s interesting to me when adults watch our show and suddenly find themselves saying, ‘This doesn’t suck.’ “

“iCarly” isn’t the only tween show making an impression on adult viewers and filling a TV void of family programming.

“Good Luck Charlie,” a new Disney Channel sitcom about a family adjusting to the unexpected arrival of its fourth child, attracted more than 930,000 adults to its premiere episode in April.

Other tween shows that perform reasonably well among adults include the animated “Phineas and Ferb,” “Hannah Montana” and “Wizards of Waverly Place” on the Disney Channel, and “Victorious” and “Big Time Rush” on Nickelodeon.

Even the Cartoon Network is getting in on the act. For the recent premiere of “Unnatural History,” more than one-fourth of the kids who tuned in watched the show with an adult – a much higher figure than usual for the cable outlet.

“It’s kind of a new and refreshing trend,” says Dana Ewing, senior strategic planner for The Geppetto Group, a New York-based youth marketing firm.

“It’s a move back to the all-family type programming that the (broadcast) networks, for some reason, abandoned. These kinds of shows come with themes that are relatable and relevant to more than just the kids.”

Indeed, the executives at the Disney Channel bat around the term “family inclusive” in reference to their shows, and speak of “entry points” that encourage both kids and their parents to watch.

With Disney’s “Hannah Montana,” for example, adult viewers are drawn to the real-life relationship between Billy Ray Cyrus and daughter Miley.

“But it goes beyond simply putting strong adult characters in the shows,” says Adam Bonnett, senior vice president of original programming for the Disney Channel. “We want parents to see themselves in those characters – or even to see what they were like as a teen and appreciate what the younger characters are going through.”

Bonnett points out that “Good Luck Charlie” often has the grown-ups talking about trying to find more time to spend with the kids – a desire that resonates with many parents. And a recent plot revolved around Mom yearning to be seen as “cool” by her daughter.

“That’s not a story line you would have necessarily seen years ago,” Bonnett says. “It’s not that the mom didn’t want be taken seriously, or be seen as an authority figure. It’s that she felt it was important to bond with her daughter.”

A lot of parent-child bonding apparently is happening with “Phineas and Ferb,” Disney’s cartoon about suburban stepbrothers who spend their summer vacation devising outrageous inventions to stave off boredom.

Adults 18 and older account for 24 percent of the show’s audience when it airs on the Disney Channel and 31 percent on Disney XD.

“I like how it celebrates imagination via the new and creative enterprises the characters undertake. Plus, it’s pure escapist fun,” says Matt Blum, assistant editor of the popular “GeekDad” blog on wired.com.

Blum, who watches “Phineas and Ferb” with his son and daughter, ages 9 and 7, has written extensively about his love for the quirky show. He praises its snappy writing and the way it doesn’t “talk down” to children.”

And he appreciates how it contains a few jokes aimed directly at baby boomers.

“On one episode, Phineas did a William Shatner ‘Star Trek’ impression,” he recalls. “My kids just looked at me and said, ‘Why are you laughing?’ “

Still, the youth networks seemingly walk a fine line in producing programs that appeal to adults. After all, don’t kids typically avoid things that their parents see as hip?

Not always, claims Marjorie Cohn, chief of original programming development at Nickelodeon.

“We’ve done studies that show, as the world changes, kids want to share more of their personal interests with their parents,” she says. “That doesn’t mean they still don’t have their secret lives on Facebook, but they’re basically saying, ‘(These shows) are mine, and I want to share them with you.’ It’s very much like the way parents share their classic rock songs with the kids.”

And it certainly makes smart business sense, according to Ewing.

Tweens are responsible for hundreds of billions in consumer spending. If television can woo Mom and Dad into the fold, it only stands to reason the networks will have allies whenever their children make urgent pleas for that “iCarly” doll or Hannah Montana concert tickets.

“Obviously it’s a big plus if you can build a business that is endorsed and supported by parents – one that isn’t looked upon in a negative light,” Ewing says.

For Moss, “iCarly” has fulfilled that mission. A web designer, she appreciates the fact that Cosgrove’s character is tech-savvy.

But what she really embraces are the “positive messages” the series imparts to her daughter.

“It shows that girls can be funny and smart and leaders, too,” she says. “It’s not just about shopping and boys and the way you look. Carly is no bimbo.”



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