The Kids Are Alright: South Bay’s Bob Bain puts on the Teen Choice Awards amid a changing media landscape
by Ryan McDonald
More than a decade ago, Bob Bain was in his former office when his production partner popped in and asked Bain if he would like to watch a band performing in a room down the hall. The group had an energy, a buzz that suggested big things might be on the horizon. Bain, buried in work, declined.
The band was the Jonas Brothers, the New Jersey pop trio and Disney Channel sensation who would go on to sell millions of records before breaking up in 2013. (They reunited in March of this year, with a single, “Sucker,” that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard record chart.) But while Bain may have missed the intimate performance from the future teen heartthrobs, he would have plenty of chances to see them again in the future, including Sunday, when the Jonas Brothers joined Taylor Swift, Robert Downey, Jr., and many, many other celebrities gracing the sand south of the Hermosa Beach pier for the Teen Choice Awards.
Aug. 11 marked the 21st staging of the Teen Choice Awards; Bain’s production company has put on every single one. And while the acts have changed over the years, the show remains a cultural touchstone.
“We tend to get these acts on the trajectory, on their way up, which I think is one of the reasons why we get a lot of traction from the younger acts. I think they see this as a kind of stepping stone to broader pop culture recognizability,” said Bain, whose production company is based in El Segundo.
This is true even though the awards are taking place in a time of rapid change in the entertainment industry. As always, this year’s awards were broadcast live nationally, on Fox. According to reports from industry publications, the 2018 telecast of the Teen Choice Awards marked a nadir in its historical Nielsen ratings; viewership fell more than 40 percent from the previous year. But this figure may say as much about the way television ratings are measured as it does about the popularity of the show. The standard Nielsen metric examines the 18 to 49 demographic, almost all of whom are not, well, teens.
More significantly, the awards are targeted at people who spend plenty of time staring at screens, but whose viewing habits may not be well tallied by traditional methods. Deadline Hollywood reported that, although television viewing dropped for last year’s awards, Twitter volume about the show increased 72 percent. Bain described Teen Choice as “a platform that is broadcast on television to an audience that doesn’t watch television.” This creates financial complications because, as many eyes as there may be on social media, Facebook and Google harvest almost all of the associated advertising revenue. As a result, even as the show strives for cultural freshness, it remains closely linked to the old school broadcast medium, and the associated commercials that can be sold. The show’s date is fixed in mid-August so that the broadcast can take advantage of the back-to-school shopping season.
For Bain and others attempting to tap into this often confounding media market, the strategy-du-jour is conscripting stars in an attempt to “migrate” the young audience from social media toward the broadcast and encourage “co-watching” with parents and elders. Celebrities use social media to announce their appearance and boost their own profile, which in turn draws eyes to TV. Like a nightclub that manages to stay packed through the discerning choices of its bouncer, the awards are above all a place to be seen.
“We have a much greater percentage of social media stars than ever before. If those stars are doing their part, if he or she is telling me that he’s on Teen Choice, then I’m going to watch,” Bain said.
Consider David Dobrik, co-host for this year’s awards, along with actress and singer Lucy Hale. On July 29, Dobrik, a YouTuber whose videos have been viewed more than 5.5 billion times, Tweeted “OHH ITS OONNNNN,” above a picture of himself, backwards hat and goofy grin, inscribed with viewing information for the show. As of press time, the Tweet — misspellings, lack of punctuation and all — had been “liked” more than 135,000 times.
From hangar to Hermosa
Bain grew up in Indiana, and moved to California to play in a rock band. (A small electronic drum kit sits in the corner of his El Segundo office.) Then, “when that started to seem ridiculous,” Bain said, he decided to go to law school, and attended USC. While there, he became president of the Entertainment Law Society, and began to envision a career path that combined his creative side with the business of Hollywood.
After law school, Bain worked for several television production companies, including Columbia Pictures, MGM and Aaron Spelling. In the early ‘90s, he moved to the relatively young Fox television network, where he became head of specials, and gained production experience working on variety showcases and awards shows. Then, in 1996, he left Fox to form his own company.
The first Teen Choice Awards took place in 1999, at the Barker Hangar at the Santa Monica Airport. Among those working on the show with Bain was Hermosa resident Dency Nelson. Nelson, who spent a quarter century as the stage manager of the Oscars and other live televised events, said he often encountered people from the business side of the entertainment industry who thought they could easily transition into production. Bain, Nelson recalled, was more humble than most, and recognized the importance of an experienced team.
“To Bob’s credit, he brings in top lighting, top designers, top camera guys, and us, the stage managing crew. Some people don’t recognize that. He’d been around, and he did,” Nelson said.
The Teen Choice Awards emerged as a new wave of pop acts — Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, NSync — were capturing the attention of millennials and the dollars of their baby boomer parents. The show featured them all over the years.
Teen Choice distinguished itself from the beginning with its physical awards, which are actual surfboards. The year-to-year evolution of the real-seeming boards has become an object of minor curiosity for surfers. In 2009, Lewis Samuels, a staff writer for Surfer Magazine and founder of the widely read but short-lived blog PostSurf, documented the evolution of the Teen Choice boards over the years, noting how they mirrored changes in the surf industry and pop culture. Samuels, ever the caustic, pointed out that in a year in which Spears appeared to have put on weight, the boards were wider and likely more buoyant.
Bain’s kids grew up surfing, and he was inspired to choose the surfboard in part as a tribute to the South Bay. But the boards also reflect an undeniable link between youth culture and the beach, one that has made hosting the show in Hermosa seem almost foreordained. Bain had long dreamed of hosting the show on the beach, but found himself stymied by restrictions on summer events from the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors. Then, last year, Spyder Surfboards owner Dennis Jarvis suggested to Bain that he explore holding the show in Hermosa, which, unlike almost every other city in the region, owns its beach.
Bain said that, while hosting the events on the beach represented the fulfillment of a dream, it was the most difficult show to pull off yet. An enclosure for 10,000 fans was built on the sand in front of the stage. Passes were free, and 3,000 tickets were set aside specifically for Beach City residents. Within hours of their distribution, the tickets were being scalped on social media sites.
Bain said that while some of the Hermosa summer concerts in the past drew comparable crowds, the high-profile acts and awards presenters created additional organizational challenges.
“These numbers by themselves are not extraordinary. But those shows are also not talking about Taylor Swift and the Jonas Brothers. The level of talent that we brought to this show required a very significant security strategy, and we’ve spent a lot of time and money to implement that,” Bain said before the show.
Nelson said that, for all of the commercial and logistical pressure put on awards shows, opportunities for auteur touches remain. He brought up the example of Kenny Erlich, who will retire in 2020 after serving as the executive producer of the Grammys for 40 years. Erlich became known in the awards show world for the way he selected performers for the annual music awards. In particular, Erlich’s occasionally unconventional pairings, such as Elton John and Eminem, or Beyonce and Prince, exemplified faith in an idea that had plenty of doubters — until it was shown to the world.
“That’s a vision you’ve got to trust: ‘What would I like to see? I love these artists, what would I love to see?’ You don’t miss too many times if you do that. And I’d like to think that’s partly what Bob’s got in mind doing this,” Nelson said.
When the Teen Choice awards began, ballots were distributed through youth-oriented magazines like Seventeen. By 2005, voting could be done on a promotional website. The initial platform, teenpeople.com, is now a shuttered relic of an earlier era of the internet.
Today, a voting website remains, but those wishing to use it must sign up through either an email address or a Facebook account. The other option is to vote through Twitter. The expansion of voting through social media has doubtless made the awards show more marketable, but it has come with a host of issues that mirror those now challenging both the parents of teenagers and officials at the highest levels of government. A portion of the “How to Vote” instructions on Fox’s website are devoted to impermissible subjects for tweet-votes, including death threats, pornography and “derogatory references” to Fox, Teen Choice sponsors, and nominees. And ironically, the rise of social media has also enabled, and brought exposure to, periodic unhinged rants from celebrities complaining that the awards are rigged.
While the internet may have “disrupted” the entertainment industry, it has not made it any less profitable. In June, PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ five-year Global Entertainment and Media Outlook said that total revenue for the industry came to $2.1 trillion in 2018, and would continue to rise by about $100 billion per year through at least 2023. What is changing is how the products of that industry are being consumed, and how all of that money is distributed.
The report predicts a modest decline in the “traditional TV and home video” market, but increases in almost every other sector. (The other exception is in newspapers and magazines, where revenue is projected to continue to decline, albeit at a slower rate than in recent years.) There is explosive growth forecast in virtual reality and “over-the-top” video, which, though it may sound like a description of the more outlandish YouTube offerings, is the industry name for streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, which are offered through the internet, instead of broadcast, cable or satellite. And while people’s appetite for “content” is growing, the options to absorb our attention are growing even faster.
“Increasingly, the prevailing trend of consumption, especially in markets where broadband penetration is high, is for people to construct their own media menus and to consume media at their own pace,” the report said.
These changes have significant implications for awards shows. Events like the Oscars may once have sought to project an image of critical consensus about a relatively small number of products that many people had listened to or seen. Today, Bain said, awards shows are more likely to highlight things that would otherwise be missed.
Of course, it could also be that the forces of marketing have finally slain any notion of intrinsic artistic merit. This tension is clearest in the panoply of famous-for-being-famous social media stars, who can earn millions of dollars from videos and posts that may be vapid, crude or even harmful. In 2017, for example, YouTuber Jake Paul collected two Teen Choice awards while battling a threatened lawsuit from his neighbors in Los Angeles’ Beverly Grove neighborhood, who claimed his filmed antics constituted a public nuisance.
Cultural gatekeepers have found the locks suddenly changed from the outside. In 2012, A.O. Scott, a film critic for the New York Times, wrote a critical review of “The Avengers,” deriding its shallowness and the way it embodied worrisome trends in moviemaking. The movie was nonetheless enormously popular, and it spawned the most profitable film series of all time. (The series’ final chapter led the nominations tally for this year’s Teen Choice Awards.) Blowback from indignant Marvel fans inspired Scott to write the 2016 book “Better Living Through Criticism.” But the book took a reflective tone, and Scott acknowledged that the narrative of cultural decline is almost as old as storytelling itself. “It is always an Age of Iron, and The Golden Age is always behind us, giving off a luster that illuminates the terminal shabbiness of our present condition,” he wrote.
Seeing the acts year in and year out, Bain is skeptical of the idea that today’s nominees somehow represent a departure from those of the past, or the entertainment of the decades that preceded it. The show’s central insight is that youth culture and pop culture overlap: people are excited by other people being excited, and no one is more excitable than a screaming teenager.
“Yes, there are different distractions. But I don’t believe that teenagers are much different than they were when we were teenagers. They’re banding together to try to find themselves the best way they know how. I see the reactions of teens at our shows, and it’s Beatlemania,” Bain said.