THE BLOG

Do Millennials Need Their Own TV Station?

09/24/2013 05:33 EDT | Updated 11/24/2013 05:12 EST

What if your favourite TV show prompted you to take social action? What if, while binge-watching a full season of Friday Night Lights, a link appeared to a pledge against the use of performance enhancing drugs?

When the show airs on Pivot TV, a cable network launched last month, links to a pledge against drug use (or bullying or drunk driving) really do appear on screen. You can sign a symbolic contract online, publicly promising to "play clean" and add your name to a list of peers who've committed to learn more about drug abuse and hazing rituals in sports.

Pivot is targeting millennials (ages 18 to 34) by incorporating these calls to action in its programming. The network is banking on the assumption that millennials want television with a social conscience, challenging stereotypes about the allegedly apathetic "Me Generation."

Pivot TV was launched by Participant Media, the brainchild of billionaire-philanthropist Jeff Skoll, behind films The Help and Contagion, among other socially-relevant blockbusters. The production company's small screen offering promises a diverse line-up, including Please Like Me, an Australian sitcom about a young man's "quarter life crisis," and a variety show hosted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, among others.

Pivot launched in the United States, but is available in Canada on iTunes and through the network's app.

We get millennials. The average age of Free The Children's employees is 24. Craig is a millennial, and we both work and volunteer alongside young people every day. We've also heard the myths. Millennials are "lazy, entitled narcissists," according to Time Magazine. Another urban legend: Young people don't watch the news or read the paper because they don't care about the world beyond their profile pictures.

"We don't buy it," says Chad Boettcher, executive vice president of social action and advocacy at Participant Media. To Pivot, and to us, millennials are pro-social, cause-driven, passionate about world change and hopeful that they will achieve it, he adds.

And there is proof. According to the 2012 Millennial Impact Report, 75 per cent of young people donated to charitable organizations in 2011. The study, which surveyed 6,522 participants between the ages of 20 and 35, also revealed that donors did their homework. Nine out of 10 researched an organization prior to donating, defying the stereotype that young people are too lazy to be informed.

The network will measure its success with three metrics: viewership, engagement, and attitude and behavioural changes. The fate of the venture hinges on the belief that young people really do care about the world, that millennials need their own network, and that they will respond to actions presented on TV.

In August alone, 160 action items were promoted on air, driving viewers to takepart.com, to further fuel the spark for action.

Pivot also says that millennials crave media literacy, which is a surprise for these digital natives. Yet, a Pivot survey found that 46 per cent of millennial respondents believed traditional media had misled them in the past month, while 66 per cent believed they were misled by social media within the same timeframe.

Millennials are very aware of bias, says Boettcher. Young people will "curate truth" based on information from sources they trust, mainly friends whose perspectives they can intuit, and are wary of sources with unfamiliar or unclear agendas. What some call apathy might actually be critical thinking -- a reasonable response to information overload from digital natives. Young people may know more about the latest revolutions in technology and communication than their parents, but they are still highly sceptical of information delivered by these new mediums.

So a millennial-targeted network, one that caters to their media consumption habits, and their unique brand of both idealism and scepticism, makes sense. Whether young people become involved with issues they see on TV is another question.

It's early days for the network, but prospects look good. Engagement, which includes "everything from clicking, liking, sharing, to signing a petition or putting pressure on your government representative," will be measured through takepart.com, which launched a few years ago as a hub for Participant movie fans and already sees 4.5-million visits monthly, mostly from millennials, says Boettcher.

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. Participant certainly gets how to make moral lessons highly entertaining. Their issue-based films -- Charlie Wilson's War, The Crazies, The Informant, among dozens of others -- have sent people to the movies in droves.

"A good story, well told, can change the world," says Boettcher.

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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