One might surmise that the box office failures of films about environmental issues such as 2017’s Downsizing and 2013’s Promised Land would clue studios and producers that these topics – and the way these topics are presented – aren’t appealing to audiences. Why do studios and producers keep making the same mistakes over and over again? Perhaps relying upon flawed survey methods – and flawed interpretations of survey data – are leading content creators on the path to failure.
Prominent entertainment-focused publications such as Deadline and IndieWire have reported on “CSS Teens & Screens 2022,” a recent survey from five authors with UCLA’s Center for Scholars & Storytellers. Polling 662 teens ages 13 to 18 during July 2022, the survey’s authors proclaimed several conclusions from participants’ responses:
- teens reject what they consider to be “aspirational” content
- teens want to see stories “about people that differ from their own identity as well as stories that are hopeful and uplifting.”
- teens prefer a “Black male hero” and a “White male villain”
- teens find social media to be a “hub for authenticity” (in particular, TikTok was rated the highest)
The lowest ranked subject of interest according to the 662 survey respondents was “climate change” at fourteen out of fourteen categories. While “Lifestyles of the super rich or famous” charted towards the bottom at ten, just below were “Systemic injustice” at eleven, “Stories about nonbinary and LGBTQ+ identities” at twelve, and “Partying and/or drugs and drinking” at thirteen. The ultra-low ranking of drinking, drugs, and partying as a subject implies that the incoming generation of content consumers might be more interested in works more wholesome than the stereotypical concept of appealing to youth with unbridled bacchanalia.
Considering UCLA’s status as one of the most prestigious film schools in the country (ranked 9th in 2022 by The Hollywood Reporter) and the survey’s coverage by entertainment publications, it is possible that studios and organizations with the wherewithal to create content might rely on the survey’s conclusions. Producing films and television series that are popular with young viewers has tremendous upside potential considering the longevity of well made works originally aimed at children and teens. For instance, superheroes that were created all the way back in the 1930s and 1960s such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man continue to delight audiences with adaptation after adaptation. One might think that following the conclusions of the authors is the best way to reach the latest generation. However, a closer look at the report reveals not only the flaws in the stated conclusions in the survey, it also provides an inkling of what young viewers might actually be interested in seeing.
A Few Fundamental Flaws
What isn’t addressed in the details of the report is the relatively large margin of error – five percent with a 662 sample size and 99 percent level of confidence – which could invalidate their conclusions. Such a margin of error — as it does in at least one occasion (demographic preference of a hero) – rendered the authors’ sweeping declarations about the survey’s findings inaccurate.
Another issue with the methodology is the sampling regarding the demographics of survey respondents. Given that the report is implied to apply to the nation as a whole, one might expect that the samples would reflect the current demographics of the United States. However, this is not the case. According to the 2020 census, “non-Hispanic” whites comprise 57.8 percent (or a 61.6 percent total among “Hispanic whites”) of the population, while Latinos make up 18.7 percent, African-Americans comprise 14.2 percent, Asian-Americans make up 7.2 percent, and American Indian/Alaska Natives make up 1.1 percent of the population. The sample of adolescents polled in the survey was stated to be comprised of 47.3 percent “White/Caucasian” respondents, 21.6 percent “Hispanic/Latinx” respondents, 19 percent “Black/African American” respondents, 6.2 percent “Asian/Asian American” respondents, 0.2 percent “Indigenous American” respondents, 0.8 percent “Middle Eastern/North African” respondents (this category is considered white by the U.S. Census), 2.9 percent “Multi-Ethnic” respondents, and 2.1 percent of respondents who identified themselves as “Other.” The oversampling and undersampling of different ethnic groups could easily lead to a result that is non-representative of the teenage public at large.
These flaws with the survey’s methodology jeopardize the accuracy of an assessment of what young viewers are interested in.
Viewers Clearly Want Inspirational Content, If Not So-Called “Aspirational Content”
The first two tenets of the survey’s authors’ conclusions revolves around forms of content teen viewers want – and don’t want – to see. The definition used by the authors regarding “aspirational content” is “content about story worlds that teens wish they were part of (e.g., being rich, famous, etc.).” On the fifth page of the authors’ report, under the headline “Finding One,” the subheading states “Teens Resoundingly Rejected Aspirational Stories,” with the indication that 4.4 percent of respondents were interested in “aspirational content.”
There are several glaring issues with their conclusion. First of all, the authors do not provide a concrete example of a show or movie that they would consider to be “aspirational.” While the IndieWire article references Gossip Girl as a supposedly aspirational work, neither Gossip Girl nor any other purported example surfaces in the actual report.
Here’s the rub: while only a paltry 4.4 percent of teens stated their interest in “aspirational content,” a plurality of respondents – 37.8 percent– wanted “to have fun and escape while watching content.” Escapism through fictional characters and storylines has been popular for a long time – part of the nearly century-old novel The Great Gatsby’s enduring appeal (which was adapted into an internationally successful 2013 film) is the chance to “lose oneself in the rush of opulence.” According to musician David Stewart, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev even believed that airings of Dallas and its depiction of “Western wealth, success and power” may have sank the appeal of communism in the USSR. Two participants in the survey cited at the bottom of page 5 centered around “aspirational stories” specifically referenced wanting either “fun and escapist” or “silly things to escape.” Escapist works that may be considered by the authors to be “aspirational” may be more popular than at first glance. The results may be obscured by the nomenclature: categorizing “aspirational” and “fun/escape” as two separate categories.
The next page, with the headline “Finding Two,” features the subheading “Teens Wanted Stories About Hope, Lives Unlike Their Own, Family, and Friendships.” The findings suggest that teen viewers want hopeful, real-world inspirational content, and the authors conclusion implies that this type of material is uncharted territory.
Regardless of what the authors have implied, inspirational content about protagonists beating the odds is easily found in movies like Lean On Me, Stand and Deliver, Remember the Titans, Men of Honor, Coach Carter, The Great Debaters, La Bamba, Selena, and Real Women Have Curves. While the “inspirational educator” has often been mocked on social media, school stories are just one of many types of films showing underdog protagonists beating the odds. Offbeat comedy films with authenticity featuring protagonists with widely differing backgrounds and lives like the semi-autobiographical comedy Hollywood Shuffle and the parody film I’m Gonna Git You Sucka also stand out. All of the aforementioned films made money at the box office, illustrating their appeal to a variety of audiences.
Racial Representations And Statistical Challenges
On page 7, under the headline “Finding Three,” the authors’ subheading proclaims that “Teens Cast Black Males as the Hero.” Just below this subheading is the statement “the majority of teens cast a BLACK MALE (23.6%) as the HERO.” Below that is the statement “an even larger majority cast a WHITE MALE (34.9%) as the VILLAIN.”
There’s plenty of flaws in this section. For starters, 23.6 percent and 34.9 percent are not majorities – they’re pluralities. Merriam-Webster defines a plurality as “a number of votes cast for a candidate in a contest of more than two candidates that is greater than the number cast for any other candidate but not more than half the total votes cast.” Conversely, Merriam-Webster’s first definition for a majority is “a number or percentage equaling more than half of a total.” The figure 23.6 amounts to less than a quarter while 34.9 is barely over a third – both far away from a majority.
Second, the authors’ presentation of their “Hero Casting Preference” downplays the fact that the next highest preferential category after “Black Male” is “White Male” at 19.5 percent. Just 4.1 percentage points separate the preference of a “Black Male Hero” and a “White Male Hero” – which is within the aforementioned five percent margin of error. The presence of a 662-person survey’s margin of error entirely destroys the ability of the authors to make any meaningful conclusions regarding teens’ “Hero Casting Preference.”
In general, among the 662 teens polled, male heroes fared better than female heroes/heroines with preference for male heroes outpolling female heroes/heroines in every ethnic category (closest was Asian Male with 10.3 percent to Asian Female with 10.0 percent). The story of the male/female gender divide in preferences appears to be a great disparity, yet the authors chose to downplay it in favor of discussing ethnicity.
A paragraph in the survey’s conclusion states: “We hope that the industry will begin to shift away from aspirational content that does not reflect the real world of most adolescents which is filled with nuance and diversity.” The implication of this statement is that filmmakers, writers, and content creators past and present – many of whom happen to be African-American, Latino, Asian-American, and Native American –haven’t already created oeuvres of stories told through a cinematic lens.
Other explorations of the topic of diversity in entertainment frequently comes to the same conclusion – that more people of color need to be behind the scenes in a writing, directing or producing role. The vast majority of aforementioned films feature one or multiple people of color in a leading behind the scenes role, whether as director (Men of Honor, Coach Carter, The Great Debaters, Stand and Deliver, La Bamba, Selena, Real Women Have Curves, Hollywood Shuffle, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka), writer (Remember the Titans, Stand and Deliver, La Bamba, Selena, Real Women Have Curves, Hollywood Shuffle, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka), or producer (The Great Debaters, Selena, Real Women Have Curves, Hollywood Shuffle).
Whether the report’s authors realize it or not, by ignoring and overlooking the contributions of past creatives, they are erasing the work done by independent writers, directors, and producers — many of whom happen to be people of color.
For the report’s focus on authenticity, the preoccupation with on-screen representation of ethnicity without attention paid to diversity the behind the scenes – or to other divides in American society, such as socioeconomic status – leaves the reader with an impression of media understanding that is ultimately superficial.
Woke O’Clock High: Uncritical Acceptance Of TikTok’s Alleged “Authenticity”
On page 8 of the report, the authors showcase the subheading “Teens Said Social Media Was More Authentic Than Any Other Media.” The report states that 55.1 of teens polled found that “SOCIAL MEDIA did the best job of reflecting content that felt authentic to them.” Of that 55.1 percent, the authors write “a resounding 64.9% ranked TIKTOK as the most authentic social media platform.”
Nowhere in the report does it even suggest the dubiousness of information disseminating over CCP-controlled TikTok as a challenge facing America’s teens. In a Nov. 6, 2022 interview with 60 Minutes, social media ethicist Tristan Harris indicated that the version of the TikTok app used in China is vastly different from that used in the United States. Harris stated: “It’s almost like they recognize that technology is influencing kids’ development, and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world.” Everyone from politicians to industry experts have sounded the alarm about the unique threat to American youth posed by the app – including its effect of shortening attention span – yet this goes unaddressed in the survey conclusions.
Instead, the authors include several quotes indicating TikTok’s appeal, with one participant quoted as saying: “Honestly there’s so much movement there, I’ve learned more from TikTok than in school and not just about history, but about injustice, around the world.” Another teen surveyed noted: “I like TikTok because of the diversity of its creators.”
A useful conclusion from the survey is that American policymakers need to do more to counter predatory apps developed and operated by hostile foreign powers.
Conclusions, Illusions, and Delusions
The authors’ conclusion notes: “We hope that the industry will begin to shift away from aspirational content that does not reflect the real world of most adolescents which is filled with nuance and diversity. Hopeful messaging could also be used to engage teens with important and complex subjects in the future, such as climate change.”
The authors appear to be ignoring the findings of their own survey, which placed “climate change” dead last among topics that teens are interested in. The more time spent focusing on the climate and woke priorities, the less time spent addressing issues such as family life, mental health, friendships and social groups, and the experiences of regular people that teens ranked highly in the study.
If producers follow the advice of the authors, they will likely continue to lose money and lose audiences. Conversely, if they glean data from studies like this while ignoring the woke framing of the authors’ conclusions, they can produce content that is popular, relevant, entertaining, and timeless.
The utter lack of rigor, coupled with the skewed sample demographics, begs the following question: what is the purpose of this report? Since the authors unequivocally state their opinion in their recommendations, it appears that this report is a device to shape a narrative. With the report’s multitude of defects, the question becomes: is it a justified narrative, or just their own attempt at aspirational storytelling?