Skins writer: “Teen shows should be written for teens, by teens”

Writing for young people is hard, says Laura Hunter - that's why you need to be one...

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The gap between television and its audience is getting smaller and smaller, and young people are getting closer and closer to that skinny box on the wall by the day. Until one day we’ll be so close that we can literally step inside. Then CLICK! Telly as we know it will be gone for ever.

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Intolerant of ad breaks and with no taste for scheduled broadcasting, the elusive teenage viewer is now harder for broadcasters to pin down than they have ever been. Barely of age, but highly controlling, we have become spoilt by Sky+, 4oD and BBC iPlayer that, like a pushover mum, pander to our every whim, allowing us access to television anywhere and at any time.

Much like man’s evolutionary switch from a diet of raw meat to sophisticated cooked fare, underage viewers have made the digital switch and, as a result, developed an inability to ingest terrestrial television the way we used to. So how do TV executives appeal to this elusive viewer? By giving us our electronic five-a-day, obviously.

Telly is not the only screen in the room. It is now forced to share face time with smartphones, tablets, MP3s, Facebook apps and Tweets. Notoriously aloof and disengaged adolescents are now endlessly encouraged to participate in our favourite shows by “tweeting-along”, “like-ing” Facebook pages and blogging reviews on YouTube.

But the teenage audience is fickle. Caught in a bad romance with their favourite shows, they vent their fierce loyalties or fatal disdain for the shows they consume, with fans creating their own web pages on Tumblr or Fan Forum to discuss and share their opinions on all things telly.

The culture of writing boards is here – you watch the shows, you read the boards, you take part. Television has become interactive. And as a spectator, you feel just as important as any of the actors, writers or producers. We are the active audience – the increasingly interactive generation.

However, by reducing the distance between creative suits and the general public, young viewers are chip, chip, chipping away at an imaginary brick wall; with audience participation comes an even deeper connection to the show, an ownership of its characters, and even a real stake in the stories.

No wonder, then, that young people respond positively to shows in which they can see themselves reflected, whether it be reality shows such as TOWIE and Made in Chelsea, or comedy dramas such as Misfits and The Inbetweeners. Which begs the question, why are these shows being created and commissioned by much older writers?

In the past, it was easier to get away with stereotypes and clichés – tropes when it came to all things teen – as that is all we had been fed, but now we are able to spot them a mile off ourselves. We know our language and can easily point out the fakes and wannabes.

By that, I mean writing for young people is getting harder and harder as our subcultures and influences are evolving quicker and quicker. The only way it seems to deliver authenticity is to constantly be around young people… or be one.

I scammed my way into becoming a television writer aged 18 (I’m 20 now) when I sent in a script on spec to the producer of Skins. I was offered a contributors’ position in the writers’ room. At first I was just a young voice in the room, and later a contributor for their online content, such as blogs, until finally at the start of last year, I was commissioned to write episode 7 in series 6. 

Which is why I believe platforms such as Talent4 and Coming Up are of paramount importance to telly shows and their active audience – but they are still too few and far between. If broadcasters want to keep the elusive teenage viewer tuning in, then teen shows should be written for teens, by teens. 

Skins continues tonight at 10pm on E4

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This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 7 February 2012.