Teen Choice Awards returning to roots

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In its 11th year, the Teen Choice Awards are going back to basics: courting teenagers.

An obvious move, to be sure, but if credibility, longevity and high ratings are the goal for the show's producers and Fox, which airs the show Monday, it could be a smart one.

The Teen Choice Awards reversed a ratings slump last year when its content was less adult than in earlier years, beginning with host Miley Cyrus. At 15, she was (and is) the youngest to have ever hosted the kudofest.

While last year's show attracted an audience that was 12% larger than in 2007, its key demographic -- teenagers -- grew by an astonishing 77%. Before that, the number of viewers slid every year since 2001, bottoming out at 3.97 million in 2007 before recovering last year when 4.44 million people watched the show.

Fox is looking to keep the momentum going this year with heartthrob music group the Jonas Brothers hosting. Not only does the boy-band appeal to teens -- especially girls -- but, like Cyrus, two of them are teens themselves and the oldest, Kevin, is close enough at age 21.

It's a far cry from the days when 39-year-old David Spade hosted the show in 2003 or when Rob Schneider co-hosted in 2005 when he was 41.

Beyond its teenage host, last year's show was more wholesome than in years past, when raunchy content might have prompted parents to turn the show off.

In fact, the Teen Choice Awards have routinely been hammered as "the worst TV show of the week" by the Parents Television Council, though it escaped the label last year.

In 2006, for example, the watchdog group took Fox to task for a slew of sex jokes. That's the year co-host Dane Cook, 34 at the time, introduced two contest winners from the audience, both 15-year-old girls, and joked: "Look at them, so young and innocent, and they'll both be pregnant by the end of the night."

That same night Marlon Wayans, also 34 at the time, presented the award for best MySpace video, joking, "You've got to be naked to get in my top 8." The PTC complained of similar sexually charged jokes in 2000, 2005 and 2007.

But that level of blue comedy isn't engineered or even encouraged, says Teen Choice Awards creator/executive producer Bob Bain.

"Our mission is to avoid that kind of criticism. We're not trying to be too hip for our demo," he says. "But we're dealing with humans who say what they want. If you want to make sure no one goes left of center, you might as well cancel the show."

So inappropriate were the awards shows of the past that Tim Winter, the president of PTC, called the show "the Joe Camel of TV content. For them to have marketed this as something for 13-year-olds was wrong."

But Winter says that last year he was "absolutely delighted. It was materially more family friendly. We didn't have that 'lunge moment,' where parents lunge for the remote control."

Teen Choice Awards are voted on by teenagers (13-19) and winners get rewarded with life-sized surfboard trophies. Summit Entertainment's

"Twilight" leads this year with 12 nominations while Cyrus, the CW's "Gossip Girl" and Disney's "High School Musical 3" each have 10.

While there's no data suggesting that winners receive a sales or rating bump, nominations are usually taken seriously by teen stars and their marketing machines.

"Publicity ultimately means bigger ratings," says Dan Schneider, creator/executive producer of Nickelodeon's "iCarly," which has garnered four nominations. "Anybody who says they don't care about winning is lying. We work hard to make a good show and it's exciting to be recognized by a third party."

Schneider and the cast of "iCarly" have been tweeting to about 200,000 followers about their nominations and Schneider shot a comical online short called "Baby Spencer" that stars Jerry Trainor, who plays the title character's older brother on "iCarly." The Twitter updates implore fans to vote for "iCarly" and insists: "If you do, we promise to give you more Baby Spencer videos!"

"Jerry Trainor is one of the funniest people on the planet," Schneider says. "The crew just dies when we do this bit."

"iCarly" is up against Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana" for best TV comedy and, suggesting the wide range of tastes among 13- to 19-year-old voters, also nominated in the category are the more adult CBS' "How I Met Your Mother," ABC's "Ugly Betty" and NBC's "The Office."

If ratings are a guide, "The Office" will win the category because it was the highest-rated comedy among 12- to 17-year-olds from September-June, according to Nielsen. But don't bet on an "Office" win because teens are allowed to vote once a day for the two months leading up to the show. At the halfway point, 30 million votes had been cast in dozens of categories.

"What Nielsen doesn't show is how rabid your fans are," Bain says. "Younger viewers vote more, so I don't predict 'The Office' will win. That doesn't mean it's not a fabulous show, it's just not the world we walk in."

That being said, "Office" star Steve Carell earned a surfboard last year for best actor in a TV comedy.

Bain says the Teen Choice Awards is on an upswing because Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers are ushering in a new "wave of teen mania" akin to the Britney Spears-Christina Aguilera era a decade ago. That's why 34 million votes were tabulated last year, up from just 7 million the year before.

While consumers vote for the winners, it's up to Bain and a team of about 40 people to make the nominations. Once they are picked, marketers for the various nominees spring into action, mostly creating online campaigns to ensure fans know how to vote -- and vote often.

"You can't cheat. All you can do is get your fan base to vote every day," Bain says.

When the show is filmed Sunday at Universal City's Gibson Amphitheater, Bain expects the biggest teen stars in the country to be walking the red carpet, but that wasn't always the case.

"This show isn't difficult to book anymore. It was in the beginning. But now publicists call us to get their clients in front of our audience," Bain says.

That audience, of course, is massive. Teenagers watch 6% more TV today than they did five years ago, and they make up 14% of the moviegoing audience, according to Nielsen. Last year, the average teenager watched 31.4 movies via all means, compared with 25.3 for all consumers.

"Our ratings will be up this year -- I guarantee it -- riding that wave of teen mania," Bain says. "But I don't know what will happen next year."
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