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For Online Video, it Really Is All About the Millennials

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It’s a hard truth for anyone covering the online video space that content is heavily geared to millennial viewers, the 18–33-year-olds. If a publisher depends on advertisers for its livelihood, it’s going to try to attract the viewers advertisers want to reach.

Consider the one online publisher that doesn’t depend on ad revenue: Netflix. Its content looks geriatric compared to the others. Being free of ads let it succeed with a show about a corrupt older politician and his wife (House of Cards) and a sitcom about a pair of newly single older friends (Grace and Frankie). It’s hard to imagine any other online publisher greenlighting those.

The rest more or less play for younger viewer. As a proud Gen Xer, I admit it’s hard not to be the desired demo anymore. I attend the NewFront presentations each year and see slate after slate of online originals that are meant for viewers younger than me. I can’t blame the publishers: Young adults watch online shows at much higher rates than older adults, and they’re coveted by brands. It’s only good sense to go after them.

“The strategy is really focused on the notion that a lot of young people, a lot of millennials, maybe don’t have TV or have never gotten TV and they’re getting a lot of their content from the internet. I think it’s something like over 80 percent of millennials are watching long-form content and get what we could consider TV content through streaming and over the internet,” says Anna Robertson, vice president of Yahoo Studios and head of video at Yahoo. “We certainly are looking at that audience ... We’ve got several initiatives that we’ve been working on, obviously to cater to the vast Yahoo audience, but also to target that young population in particular.”

I spoke to Robertson because Yahoo seems to be going after the millennial viewer harder than the rest. I wanted to learn the thinking behind the strategy.

There are key differences in how my generation and today’s young adults get their media. Gen Xers love our DVRs. We’re often not ready to cut the cord, and we love having our broadcast programs available for viewing on our own time. Millennials grew up on YouTube and can rattle off dozens of channels they visit regularly. The other week I spoke to a millennial who was passionately concerned that Grace Helbig had made a bad move by hosting a show on E! That’s certainly not a Baby Boomer topic of conversation.

My generation is anti-ad, and we love to block or skip them. That’s another reason we love the DVR. Millennials have a more nuanced approach, accepting pre-rolls and branded entertainment.

“I think that [millennials] certainly are savvy about the fact that advertising exists and needs to be done in a tasteful way, and they understand that content can’t always be free,” Robertson said. “It’s about creating really authentic marketing and advertising around the shows that we create.”

Studying Yahoo’s shows designed to cater to millennials, I realized something: They looked awfully familiar. Take Ultimate DJ, for example, a contest reality show designed to find the next great EDM talent. That looks a lot like American Idol, the biggest hit of the 2002 season. Ultimate DJ even has Simon Cowell behind it.

Or take The Pursuit, a sit-com about a group of young people trying to make it in Manhattan. There’s no mistaking it: Yahoo’s description even calls it “an edgier, 21st century take on Friends in the era of social media.”

So millennials might think they’re enjoying fresh edgy content in new ways, but from where I’m sitting I think they’re enjoying Generation X’s reruns—just as we watched the reruns of the Baby Boomers who came before us.

This article appears in the September 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “It Really Is All About Millennials.”

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