Sink Or Swim

What can credit unions learn from Adult Swim, the No.1 rated television network among adults 18-34 years old?

In the 1952-1953 television season, I Love Lucy set the record with the highest all-time average annual Nielsen rating*, 67.3. The show with the highest average annual Nielsen rating for the 2013-2014 television season, some 61 years later, was NBC Sunday Night Football, with a 12.8 rating.

On the one hand, television ratings have declined because there’s a surplus of programming across hundreds of channels, diluting individual ratings. On the other, live television viewing as a whole has eroded the past few years, especially among young adults. On basic cable, live viewership among 18-34 year olds declined 14% in 2014**.

Highest average nielsen rated shows per year
Data As of 2013-2014 TV Season


Source: Nielsen

Not at Adult Swim, the alternative comedy cable network that shares channel space with Cartoon Network and runs every night from 8:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. According to the Wall Street Journal, for the last 10 years the network has ranked first among adults 18-34 years old in basic cable ratings across the total day. In addition, the median age of the Adult Swim viewer is 24 years old, about half that of viewers across all broadcast and cable channels. Imagine a credit union with a similar demographic breakdown, that’s how impressive this is.

Adult Swim occupies a profitable and valuable business: Young adult viewers watching live television (where ads aren’t as frequently skipped)? Adult Swim is an outlier in the programming world. Here are four lessons credit unions can learn from this bastion of young adult interest.

Lesson No. 1 Embrace Your Brand

I, as many others in my age range undoubtedly did, grew up watching Adult Swim. It’s weird. It’s not like anything else on television, and it almost doesn’t even belong there. And that’s why people like it. It’s as unlike television as credit unions are unlike banks, and its messaging embraces this.

What the channel has become known for, beyond its original programming, are its bumps, short promotional spots that can take the form of humorous written messages:

Or video that promotes the network:

And although these bumps are cheap and easy to produce in-house, they aren’t a big revenue generator. In late 2013, Adult Swim aired its first product placement, a 90 second spot from Subway. It would have been easy to run a boilerplate ad, a 30 second throwaway clip no one would have thought twice about. But Adult Swim wanted something that more matched the strange sensibilities of its brand and its viewership. It embraced its differences. To positive reviews, Adult Swim ran this:

Lesson No. 2 Work With What You Have

Mike Lazzo was hired to the shipping department of Turner Broadcasting Systems in 1984. By 1994 he was working to develop programming for Cartoon Network. Heavily influenced by what the Journal article refers to as the gonzo corporate approach of Ted Turner, the same year Lazzo and a team of co-workers created the seminal show, Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Lazzo now oversees Adult Swim.

The show embodied what would come to define the network’s comedic sensibilities: It was a talk show hosted by the titular animated character from the 1960’s and featured real-life guests. According to the Journal, it used cheap microphones and recycled footage from the Turner library of aliens and D-list superheroes from old Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

In the beginning, Lazzo and others who would build Adult Swim had little, whether in the form of resources or capital, a problem to which many smaller credit unions can relate. Still, by creatively repurposing the intellectual content at its disposal, however limited, Adult Swim created what’s widely consideredone of the network’s greatest shows.

Lesson No. 3 Balance Creative Freedom With Institutional Goals

As the content of the network suggests, Adult Swim provides employees a large degree of creative freedom. This work environment allows the network to attract talent otherwise outside its price range. Actors John C. Reilly, Rob Corddry, and Patton Oswalt have shows on the network. As does Mike Tyson. According to the Journal, Kanye West has a proposal for a show pending.

Though Lazzo and others at the network want to encourage the creative talents, executives must and do factor into the development process, as creative freedom cannot be supported by executive negligence. Mainly, higher-ups offer story suggestions, which, according to the Journal, have been well received.

You don’t want to let Lazzo down, says Dan Harmon to theJournal, creator of NBC’s Community and Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty. Which, as a writer, is such a crazy thing to hear yourself say about [an executive].

In 2014, Adult Swim lunched a new show from creators Harmon and Justin Roiland, Rick and Morty. An early note by Lazzo calling to change the relationship dynamic between the show’s titular protagonists resulted in a hit show about, says the Journal, a family learning to get along through trial and outlandish error. It’s a creative blueprint similar to successful episodic comedies, such as The Simpsons, and plays into the network’s long-term goal to develop broader though still strange shows to a wider audience.

While it’s important for credit unions to hire and encourage creative employees, member-facing content of any kind must run through department managers who can provide another layer of perspective and counsel, and have a bigger-picture understanding of the institution’s goals.

Lesson No. 4 Interest Underserved Markets

Prime-time shows on the four major networks NBC, Fox, ABC, and CBS do little to pique young adult interest. According to the Los Angeles Times, in the 2010-11 season, there were two prime-time broadcast shows (out of more than 70 non-sports programs on the four major networks) with a median viewer age 60 or older. In 2014 there were 10. Young adults, clearly, are underserved by television.

Starting March 31, 2014, Adult Swim expanded its schedule to include the 8-9 p.m. hour, a move further into prime-time. Although in the short-term the move resulted in the network airing more syndicated content (i.e. re-runs of Family Guy and King of the Hill), the success of Rick and Morty (which airs at 10:30 p.m.) indicates that broader comedies with the network’s familiar aesthetic interest Adult Swim’s youthful audience. And if that’s the case, by extending its timeslot Adult Swim is giving its audience more of what it wants.

Young adult borrowers are different than their generational predecessors: They have different needs, wants, interests, and expectations; they respond to different products, services, and messaging. It’s a generation that will be large and influential, and will have more buying power than any other by 2017. And though they remain, to a degree, underserved by the financial services industry, credit unions must continue to develop products and services of interest. The Millennials are coming.

*Nielsen ratings are calculated in two ways: viewer diaries when the target audience self-records viewing habits and physical meters small devices connected to televisions in selected homes which gather viewing habits and transmit the information back to Nielsen.

**Time-adjusted and online viewing have benefited from the decline in live TV viewing. 40% of households now subscribe to a subscription video service such as Netflix or Amazon, up from 35% in 2013; viewing of online video increased by four hours per month year-over-year to 10 hours and 42 minutes. Viewers spent 14 hours and 20 minutes per month watching time-shifted TV during the most recent quarter, up from 13 hours and 12 minutes a year ago.

March 18, 2015

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