Making television a teen effort

Norwich is an unlikely candidate for centre of cool. Yet the city which gave us `Sale of the Century' and Alan Partridge is back on the media map thanks, writes Meg Carter, to it being home to Rapture - Britain's first cable channel dedicated to teen TV.

Appearances can be deceptive. Behind the staid facade of Anglia Television's city centre headquarters - at various times an agricultural hall, museum and post office - an intrepid team, many of whom are barely older than the audience they hope to serve, are working round-the-clock to produce 11 hours of original youth TV programming a week. It's a modest start, but Rapture has big ambitions. And so does its enthusiastic production team.

Take 22-year-old Licia Graves who, armed with a media performance degree from Salford University, landed a job as presenter and researcher when the fledgling channel launched three months ago. "I want to produce, I want to present and I want to make my own shows," she declares. "I don't just want to do what other people tell me to."

Sitting opposite her in Rapture's bustling production office is Esther Dixon, at 26 a relative old-timer who studied drama at Middlesex University and worked unpaid as a runner before persuading Virgin Radio to let her produce and present entertainment news. Now a presenter on Rapture, she also mucks in as researcher, writer, editor and floor manager.

"Obviously I'd heard of multi-skilling - it's the way things are going. But I didn't quite realise it would literally mean I would be doing everything," she admits. The youthful production teams work closely with "old hands" brought in from Anglia - surely a recipe for culture clash? Not at all, Ms Dixon breezily explains: "They're great to learn from, and not fogeyish at all." (And this despite one executive likening the early days to a scene from the movie Cocoon.) "It may be a cheap way of making TV," she adds, "but it gives you much more control if you are presenting but also know how to hold a camera, or what happens in the edit."

Empowerment is a buzz word at Rapture. The young programme-makers know they're making TV on the cheap - starting salaries are around pounds 8,000 a year and production budgets a mere pounds 2,500 per half hour - but they're fearsomely ambitious. Which suits the bosses extremely well. "Today's teens are into content, not glitzy presentation, which works well for our limited budgets," says founding director Adam Stanhope.

"This is the future of multi channel television," he believes, "a channel catering for an audience poorly served by other broadcasters." It's all original programming - no US imports or re-runs. And it's totally in tune with its audience. "As we make the shows in-house, our teams are out talking to teenagers every day about what they think, like and do which comes straight back into the core of the company. No-one can accuse us of being out of touch."

Stanhope and his co-directors Robert Ditcham, Debbie Mason and Stephen Garrett, the ex-Channel 4 youth TV head who gave us The Word, conceived Rapture three years ago. They secured backing last April from United News & Media who's TV interests include HTV and Anglia, hence the Norwich link. In August they signed their first cable deal - to be part of the basic channel package available to Telewest's 650,000 cable TV subscribers. By November, the 45-strong team was on air.

There was an obvious gap in the market for a teenage TV channel, Debbie Mason believes. "Just look at the popularity of teen magazines. These are people eager to find out more about themselves and the world around them," she says. "There was a clear need for someone to address their full range of interests, not just music and football. Variety was the key - something they weren't getting on BBC 2 or Channel 4."

Despite the early rash of "yoof TV" shows fuelled by the success of Network 7 in the Eighties, teen programmes today remain marginalised - focusing on entertainment and banished to the edges of peak time so as not to alienate mainstream audiences. Shows with greatest youth appeal are now those aimed at a wider audience: Have I Got News for You, TFI Friday and anything starring Vic and Bob.

"Teenage audiences want to watch people who behave just as they are - they are no longer prepared to swallow celebrity whole," explains Siobhan Bia, senior researcher at youth market consultancy Informer. "The real danger is targeting teenagers too overtly so that they feel pigeonholed. At a time when you are trying to understand yourself, the last thing you want is people telling you who you are."

Jane Hewland, originator of Network 7 who's more recent series include Gamesmaster and Sky One drama Dream Team, agrees. "I don't think youth programmes exist any more," she says, pointing out that Channel 4's teen soap, Hollyoaks, put in a poor showing against Eastenders and Friends in a recent Smash Hits poll. "Youth's become a state of mind rather than an age group. You can't programme for teenagers, you must programme stuff that caters for different interests. There is a difference."

Rapture, however, is confident there's demand for a TV channel that reflects teenagers' everyday lives. It does, however, face a delicate balancing act. As any teenage magazine publisher knows, actual readership is always younger than target audience as teens aspire upwards - which is why most J17 readers, for example, are 12 or 13. Also, it must meet the approval of parents - the people who foot the cable TV bill.

So, the channel's programme schedule blends arts, entertainment, lifestyle and current affairs. It's fun and educational, Mason insists, but the education has more to do with inspiring than traditional teaching.

Discussion shows have addressed Aids, cannabis and the age of consent. Teenage arts show Space has reviewed books and art including the Royal Academy's controversial "Sensation" exhibition. Crush focuses on teenage relationships. Cash on Demand is a teenage finance show. Trainspotters, the obligatory music slot, includes club and DJ reviews plus a slot for unsigned bands.

For the time being, Rapture's availability remains patchy - Scotland, the north east and north west, Birmingham and the Midlands, Bristol and the west, Essex, the Thames Estuary and south west London. However, negotiations with other cable companies are underway and the directors are keeping a watchful eye on the approach of digital broadcasting.

"The idea is we will start broadcasting seven days a week when we can go digital, keeping weekend broadcasts in analogue as a taster and offer the full seven days as a subscription service," Stanhope explains. It's a gamble - but one Rapture, UN&M and Telewest are willing to take as they lay the foundations for survival in tomorrow's multi channel, digital TV world.

Which suits Licia, Esther and their colleagues just fine.

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