‘The Fosters,’ ‘Riverdale,’ ‘Runaways’ Reach Beyond Youth Programming

Creating content that works on multi-generational levels is, in some sense, nothing new: “family” programming has been around since television began. But the concept of telling smart — not sappy — stories about young people and their parents, with both generations portrayed as complex and sympathetic characters, and therefore drawing audiences across demographics, is somewhat fresher.

“Steven Universe,” which is among Cartoon Network’s top five programs with its key demo of kids 6-11, but also ranks high among adults, is animated, but it’s in good company among popular live-action series “Grown-ish,” “Marvel’s Runaways,” “The Fosters” and “Riverdale” — all ostensibly young adult shows that have attracted and retained strong adult audiences, too.

“I know as a parent, people are looking for something they can watch with their kids, but which they won’t be bored to tears watching,” says Joanna Johnson, executive producer of “The Fosters,” a cross-demo-appeal series that just wrapped after five seasons on Freeform but is setting up for a spinoff that will appear on the network in the near future. “Families want to watch TV together, but you’re not going to sit down and watch ‘Westworld’ with your kids.”

The appeal of “The Fosters” to both young and older (particularly female) audiences came as a surprise to Johnson. “The Fosters” was one of this season’s top five cable drama series among younger females and teens, and a top 10 performer in women 18-34. But the show, which began in 2013 when Freeform was still called ABC Family, benefitted from the network’s rebranding and refocusing on precisely that audience.

“The goal was to more accurately reflect who was watching,” says Karey Burke, executive vice president, programming and development for Freeform, of the brand change. “The average viewer was a 27-year-old woman, and we get a tremendous amount of co-viewing. But the name ‘family’ in the channel suggested the programming was a little softer than what we had on the air.”

“Soft” is not the description that would fit many YA-aimed TV shows today; they’re no “Westworld,” but even a series such as “Riverdale,” which itself is based on the Archie comic books, has taken on a dark, sophisticated edge, which may explain some of its appeal to both teens and adults (kids 2-17 comprise 19% of its audience).

“It’s so far away from the show I originally had in my head, which was about teen romances and a love triangle and getting milkshakes at the diner,” says showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. “But what we found is that our teen audience loves this, and grownups like the romance, too.”

For many shows, the cross-pollination wasn’t planned. “Grown-ish” showrunner Kenya Barris intended to aim his “Black-ish” spinoff at a younger audience, and when ABC (home to “Black-ish”) indicated it wanted more adults, he took it to Freeform, which is still in the Disney/ABC family of networks.

Discovering that adults were watching his show — its premiere was ranked as No. 1 of the night among women 18-34 — Barris says, “shocked the s— out of me. We knew we wanted a younger base. Young people were going through so much; I wanted to target this generation.”

But trying to attract young and not-so-young adults was more intentional with “Steven Universe,” which was created by Rebecca Sugar, someone who is an unabashed lover of cartoons but at one time thought she was “in a bubble” for being an adult who loves animation.

“Steven Universe” (top) ranks high among elementary school kids but also attracts their parents, while “The Fosters” was a top 10 performer in women 18-34 before it aired its series finale in early June.
Courtesy of Cartoon Network/Freeform

“Early on, we were actually writing two shows, one show about the adults in Steven’s life, their complex relationships and tragic histories, and then the show you actually see, which is how those adults act around Steven,” Sugar says. “Slowly, those shows begin to merge as Steven comes of age.”

It’s a baked-in strategy, she adds: “We always hoped the show would grow up with its young audiences.”

And that strategy dovetails with both the Disney family of networks and Turner’s animation networks (Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Boomerang). Both network groups cover an age spread that hopefully keeps audiences tuned in throughout their adult life. Cartoon Network is largely for a younger crowd; Adult Swim for hip twentysomethings; and Boomerang for the nostalgic crowd.

“We really are animation for all ages,” says Christina Miller, president of Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Boomerang. “Committed fans stay with us for a long time, and because of that spectrum we get audiences from multiple age groups.”
Meanwhile, Disney’s loose parallels include the Disney Channel, Disney XD, Freeform and ABC.

“Children tend to age out of TV after age 14,” says Freeform’s Burke. “That’s when we see ABC picking up viewers 18-49 and 25-54, so there’s a significant opportunity to own the YA space for the Walt Disney Co. That’s really our mission here.”

In the streaming space, the lines between young adult and plain old adult programming have become even more blurred. A show such as Hulu’s “The Runaways” can focus on teen-adult conflicts and that makes it appealing for a broader age range, while its connection to the Marvel Comic universe means there are plenty of comic-book readers who started out with the story as kids and are now adults tuning in. But above and beyond all that, being on a subscription streaming service means it doesn’t have to gear its content or tone for advertisers.

“A lot of what we’re seeing is unfettered to advertising,” says Stephanie Savage, who co-showruns “The Runaways” with Josh Schwartz. (The pair pioneered exactly this kind of crossover TV with such earlier series as“The OC” and “Gossip Girl.”)

“Advertising is so connected to demographics, but Netflix can make ‘Stranger Things’ and it doesn’t matter if adults and kids are watching it. All they need is a family who subscribes — and they’re not trying to convince car companies that men over a certain age are watching.”

“Great storytelling has specificity, and if that’s a younger time in people’s lives, it can have a very broad reach.”
Karey Burke

“It used to be about selling soap,” agrees “Grown-ish’s” Barris. “It’s now migrating to subscribers, so you’re seeing it shift in the way that media is consumed.”

Yet it all comes down to the stories being told. “The Fosters’” Johnson says she feels that the success of her show comes in part from not shoving parents offstage, while “Riverdale’s” Aguirre-Sacasa suggests it’s also about recognizing that young viewers can handle, and in fact are eager for, more sophisticated storytelling.

“There are much less boundaries these days,” he says. “Young audiences are bombarded everywhere on their devices.

Entertainment has been able to get more complex, and nuanced because of the world they’re plugged into.”

“Teens watch up, and adults look back,” points out Freeform’s Burke. “Great storytelling has a specificity of focus, and if that’s a younger time in people’s lives, it can have a very broad reach.”

But for “Steven Universe’s” Sugar, audience maturity shouldn’t be overlooked when trying to understand how some of today’s more challenging programs became the modern version of “family” TV.

“There are some shows for adults that are very immature, and they draw the attention of children,” she says. “But there are also shows for children that are deeply mature and draw the attention of adults. I believe the shift might have to do with more emotional maturity in this latest generation of adults. People are less afraid to use their imaginations and love something interesting.”

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