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Behind the Headlines: What Millennials Want to Watch

08/09/2013 12:23 EDT | Updated 10/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Behind the Headlines: Free The Children founders Craig and Marc Kielburger go behind the headlines to explore how the stories you read are connected to the causes you care about.

"All life's answers are on TV."

Words from Homer Simpson, sitcom sage, in what might be an arch commentary about the lack of moral direction on television. Otherwise he meant it literally. It's tough to tell when Homer is being ironic.

Alas, television has just gained a conscience in the form of Pivot TV, a cable network launched last week by Participant Media, the production company founded by billionaire-philanthropist Jeff Skoll, behind films The Help and Contagion, among other socially-relevant blockbusters.

Pivot targets do-gooding millennials (18-34,) and incorporates calls to action in its eclectic programming. Joseph Gordon-Levitt will host a crowd-sourced variety show that will turn to viewers for content ideas when it premieres in September. TakePart Live, a current affairs show now airing nightly, parses news headlines while its companion website takes viewers to petitions and awareness-raising campaigns related to causes featured on the network.

Pivot launched August 1 in the United States, but is available to Canadians on iTunes and through the network's app.

It's an intriguing concept: Help millennials answer life's big questions and change the world while watching television. But millennials, bombarded with information, tend to be skeptical, and they are notoriously elusive. Will they respond to calls to action presented on television?

If this basic premise worked, TVO would be rolling in money for all of their telethons. This is not the case. But those at Participant Media certainly get how to make moral lessons highly entertaining. The issue-based films Participant has produced -- Charlie Wilson's War, The Crazies, The Informant, among dozens of others -- have sent people to the movies in droves.

Before drawing up some of the social themes for their programming, Pivot sought answers to the mystery: "What do millennials want?"

Millennials, polled by Pivot, were worried about news bias, social media scams and online privacy. Polls suggested that respondents felt they weren't adept at media literacy, and in response, media education and transparency became a prime focus for the network.

It makes sense that young people would be searching for context. When most everything on television is either vapid, overtly biased, or a parody of these extremes, what is missing is authenticity. Millennials might be craving solutions to issues instead of satire. Homer Simpson without irony.

If anyone needs a dose of reality with their entertainment, it's those poised to inherit an ailing planet. Young people should respond to solutions presented along with the problems they see on the news.

And, unlike weak attempts to capture young viewers by adding hashtags to traditional programming, the network has tapped into two millennial traits: our media consumption habits along with our do-something mentality. Crowd-sourced entertainment and interactive news meets social action. It's arming the next generation with knowledge and a positive outlet. Pivot is an experiment, true, but we should all be hoping that it works.

We've known Jeff Skoll for a long time. We've worked with Participant Media in the past on social media campaigns, most recently on advocacy around Last Call At The Oasis, a documentary on the global water crisis. When Skoll travelled with us in Kenya, he shared memories of his childhood. As a boy, Skoll told us he spent hours lost in the dystopic world of Aldous Huxley novels, wary of an extreme sci-fi future of dwindling resources and government monopolies. He's always been drawn to storytelling as a means to increase social capital.

If anyone can lure millennials with entertainment linked to social action, it's Participant Media.

We'll be watching.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

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