Renowned for their fickleness, teenagers are a tough demographic to rein in. Yet that’s exactly what The WB and Jed Petrick, its president and chief operating officer, have managed to accomplish since the network was launched eight years ago.
This story first appeared in the November 17, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
No member of Generation X, Y or other, Petrick freely espouses his Brooks Brothers suits and his middle-aged angst. Yet in his keynote speech, he discussed how he’s kept young by his network’s demographic — 12- to 34-year-olds — and how in turn he keeps them loyal.
Since its inception, the network has created a bevy of popular shows, including “Smallville,” “7th Heaven,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Everwood,” “One Tree Hill,” “Reba” and “Charmed” — not to mention long-running hit shows that have now ended, like “Dawson’s Creek” and “Felicity.”
Previously, Petrick worked at the Fox Network, which pioneered the concept of edgy, alternative programming aimed at a younger generation, like “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Melrose Place” and “Ally McBeal.” However, once Fox decided to look for older viewers, a niche opened up for The WB.
“We learned many of the basic fundamentals of building a new network at Fox and we’ve utilized them again here at The WB,” said Petrick. “Most importantly, we learned that young viewers would find and eventually embrace a new and immature television station if it provided an entertaining option that specifically connected just with them — and it wasn’t easy.”
So, what exactly is the magic formula that lures fickle teens to the network and keeps them? “I believe it’s a mix of two key items that really live as one,” said Petrick. “It starts first and foremost with our brand. We have been very diligent to speak with one steady message over the years: ‘The WB is for the young and the young at heart.’ The trick lies in the message’s consistency.”
Petrick maintained that the majority of its programs are crafted in such a way that families can watch them together. The shows feature characters that young people identify with along with story lines and experiences to which every viewer can relate.
“We look for ideas and characters that are aspirational in tone and provide some sense of wish fulfillment,” explained Petrick. “Young people aspire to be older, smarter and more mature than their age or experience allows, and older folks wish they could reclaim their youth and relive some of their experiences.”
That’s why many of The WB programs feature teenage or young adult stars both struggling and striving to live within the confines of their families. By straddling both teens and their parents, the network manages to suck in both demographics.
Part of the key, according to Petrick, is that “it’s not about being young, but connecting young.” The network’s writers typically channel their youthful angst into shows that reflect or parallel their own life experiences. For example, Joss Whedon created “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as “the ultimate metaphor for his difficulty during his high school years by blowing them up to demonic proportions,” said Petrick. Amy Sherman Palladino, the executive producer of “Gilmore Girls,” a show about a mother and daughter who are only 16 years apart in age and actually behave like sisters, is reflective of Palladino’s wishes she had the same best-friend relationship with her mother.
Asked about The WB’s viewer differences with the other teen-focused network, MTV, Petrick didn’t mince words.
“MTV is the exact flip of what we do,” he said. “They are on the edgy side, but not all kids want to have sex when they are 14. Not all kids want to cut school or whatever. We’ve got the good kids at The WB.”
We’ve worked hard to educate mainstream marketers of the long-term benefits of capturing a lifelong customer at a young age and their support has grown nicely….It’s a customer for life if you do your job right. Creating a brand is one thing and making it resonate with its target is certainly another.”