It's Not the Boob Tube Anymore

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As the children's television upfront buying season starts heating up this month, media buyers, marketers, and programmers would be wise to note the latest research regarding TV viewing habits. New findings indicate that the way kids watch television correlates to the age of their parents. Boomer parents harbor more guilt about plunking their kids down in front of the set, whereas Gen Xers have a more nuanced and benevolent attitude toward the media, according to attitudinal information gleaned from the 1998 Yankelovich Monitor tracking poll.

As a result, more children's television is viewed in households with Gen X parents and kids under 12 than those with boomer parents, according to Mediamark Research Inc. Gen X households were almost twice as likely to have tuned into the Cartoon Network during a recent six-month period than boomer households; they were 54 percent more likely to have watched Nickelodeon. They were just slightly more likely to have watched the Disney Channel than their boomer counterparts, who, after all, grew up with the Mouseketeers and The Wonderful World of Disney, hosted by Walt himself. No data was available on Sesame Street.

Steve Kraus, a director at Yankelovich Partners, explains that baby boomers have always been ambivalent about television. After all, it was their parents' generation that coined the epithet "boob tube" in 1966. Generation Xers, on the other hand, "were the first to grow up with television as a babysitter," Kraus says, including educational television. "They think, "Hey Sesame Street, that did me a lot of good. There's no reason why my kids shouldn't be exposed to it, too."

David Morrison, director of TwentySomething, a Gen X research firm, says that baby boomers seem less willing or able to acknowledge that when it comes to children, there's such a thing as good TV and bad TV. Gen Xers can, he says, and they do. "They recognize that it can be entertainment or education-not just something you plop your twerp down in front of."

Kraus even believes that certain values designed to appeal to Gen X parents are evident in some kids shows: "Teletubbies has very subtle themes of diversity that will play well with Xer parents," he observes. "Tinky Winky has a male voice and carries a purse. Another tubby is a 'tubby of color.'" X-Men, a cartoon action adventure, depicts a war between mutants and humans, an analogy, Kraus offers, for race relations.

That Xers have such forgiving attitudes toward television may seem counterintuitive, since they are in some ways more conservative than their elders. For example, "two-thirds of Xers think that having a kid is an experience that all women should have," says Kraus, as compared to only half of all baby boomers. Nevertheless, a 1996 Roper syndicated study of attitudes and lifestyles finds that fewer Gen Xers have strict rules about the kinds of programs their kids can watch. That attitude also applies to time spent on the computer: Gen Xers are almost half as likely as boomers to have rules about their children's computer usage, and they are 10 percent less likely to have rules about playing video games. But then, kids of Gen Xers may also have more time to burn, because their parents are also less likely to have hard and fast rules about bedtime.

"With so many working women and with less time to spare, the television is still a babysitter," says Bob Sieber, vice president of audience development at Turner Broadcasting System, which owns the Cartoon Network. "Also, parents like to participate in things with their kids that they did-like watching the Flintstones."

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