Correction to This Article
A May 23 article incorrectly referred to the 1986-1991 television show "Head of the Class" as airing on NBC. It was on ABC.

Marketers Tune In to the Tween Set

Tween sensations, from left: Zac Efron and Vanessa Ann Hudgens in the Disney Channel's made-for-TV movie
Tween sensations, from left: Zac Efron and Vanessa Ann Hudgens in the Disney Channel's made-for-TV movie "High School Musical"; Miley Cyrus, star of Disney's series "Hannah Montana"; and Jamie Lynn Spears (Britney's sister) and Sean Flynn of the Nickelodeon series "Zoey 101." (Disney Channel Via Associated Press)

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By Paul Farhi and Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

In a blink of his bright blue eyes, Zac Efron, 18, has become a hot celebrity. He's the star of a movie and has sung on an album that topped the charts for weeks. He's got a sequel to the movie in the works and a pilot for a network show in the can.

Many people older than 16, however, might ask: Zac who?

Efron is the floppy-haired teen who plays Troy in "High School Musical," a Disney Channel made-for-TV movie that this year erupted into a frenzy of CD sales, downloadable videos and cellphone ring tones. The DVD of the movie goes on sale today; it was among the biggest advance-sale items on Amazon.com, and 1.8 million DVDs of "HSM" reportedly will be shipped to retailers, along with tie-in merchandise. And Efron's voice is all over that No. 1-selling CD, even though the "HSM" soundtrack wasn't even played on radio stations most Americans tune into while driving.

That's because the people driving this phenomenon can't drive.

As "High School Musical" proved, tweens create their own economic wave. Last month, for instance, for the first time ever, the top three albums on the Billboard charts were records aimed at kids: "Kidz Bop 9," "High School Musical" and the Jack Johnson soundtrack of the "Curious George" movie.

Marketers have known about the buying power of the pre- and early-adolescent -- or "tween" -- market ever since the late '60s and Bobby Sherman. What's different now is how much more efficient and precise selling to tweens has become. Now, thanks to niche cable channels and even niche-ier Internet sites, advertisers can tailor messages specific to tweens, leaving the rest of the world only dimly aware of tween culture.

Marc Abshire, who lives in the District, has watched his four daughters move through successive tween sensations. So how often does Sophia, his fourth-grade daughter, play "High School Musical's" soundtrack? "Every minute of the day!" her dad says.

"No!" Sophia says, then concedes: "Like, everyday."

Broadcasters stopped long ago trying to appeal to kids during prime time, now focusing on adults between ages 18 and 49. So, for tweens, the big action is on cable. The most-watched networks among the nation's 26 million children between ages 9 and 14 (definitions of tween vary, some including children as young as 7) are Viacom's Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, owned by the Walt Disney Co. But there's more: Another Disney-owned channel, ABC Family, targets tweens, as does the Cartoon Network, owned by Time Warner Inc.

Sure, tweens watch "American Idol" like the rest of the nation -- it's the No. 1 show in their demographic -- but of the 25 most-popular programs among 9- to 14-year-olds in mid-April, only seven were on the traditional broadcast networks, according to Nielsen Media Research. Sixteen of the programs were carried by either Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, the twin towers of tween targeting.

Many of the biggest names to tweens wouldn't register outside their world. Besides Efron and his co-star, Vanessa Ann Hudgens, also 18, the newest tween sensations are Miley Cyrus, the 14-year-old star of the Disney Channel series "Hannah Montana," and Jamie Lynn Spears (Britney's younger sister), who is the lead in Nickelodeon's "Zoey 101."

The average American tween lives in a world of electronic opulence, inside his or her own media bubble. According to a recent survey by Nickelodeon, 77 percent of 9- to 14-year-olds have TVs in their bedrooms, with about half this group enjoying cable or satellite access. Some 59 percent have video-game systems, 49 percent have a DVD player and 22 percent have computers connected to the Internet.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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