Beyond ‘Wednesday’ and ‘Outer Banks’: How Netflix is looking to be the new CW for Gen Z

Poguelandia, a music event Netflix is hosting for fans of the series "Outer Bank"
Netflix hosted Poguelandia, a music event Netflix is hosting for fans of the series “Outer Banks,” on February 18, 2023 in Huntington Beach. Attendees were treated to exclusive musical performances and guest appearances by the Outer Banks cast. Fans immersed themselves in iconic moments and locations from the world of OBX.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

On a chilly February afternoon in Huntington Beach, throngs of young fans of the popular Netflix show “Outer Banks” gathered for a strange beast of an event — equal parts high school beach party, trendy music festival and promotional meet-and-greet with the series’ stars.

Attendees carried their Diet Cokes and branded coconuts across the venue, passing by a giant inflatable chicken and a performance stage — emblazoned with the streaming giant’s red logo — where artists including indie-rockers alt-J and pop-soul crooner Khalid were set to perform.

Ella Coleman, 16, was one of the thousands of guests at the Poguelandia fest, so named in reference to the Pogues, the show’s working-class crew of protagonists. Coleman came from Thousand Oaks for the chance to meet the cast of her favorite show, which follows a group of teens hunting for treasure along the eponymous North Carolina coastline.


“[What] I like about the show is the action, and how it’s a mystery, and each time there’s something happening,” she told a Times reporter before taking off to join a crowd of teens chasing after cast members Drew Starkey and Austin North. ”

Attendees mug for a photo at Poguelandia
Attendees mug for a photo at Poguelandia, a music event Netflix is hosting for fans of the series “Outer Banks,” on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023 in Huntington Beach, CA. Attendees were treated to exclusive musical performances and guest appearances by the Outer Banks cast.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In many ways, Coleman is an ideal Netflix customer — though like many teens, she watches on her parents’ account.

Netflix is investing in and promoting programming about young adults and teens as it fights to remain dominant in the fiercely competitive streaming business. Bulking up in the so-called YA (young adult) category comes at a time when streamers are under pressure to become more profitable, increase their subscriber base and reduce churn.

With hits like “Wednesday” and “Ginny & Georgia,” Netflix is catering to a demographic that in another era might have been glued to the WB network or the CW during their “Dawson’s Creek” and “Smallville” heydays — CW for a generation of people who’ve never paid for cable.


Netflix’s slate includes new youth-oriented programs such as “XO, Kitty,” a “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” spinoff; “One Piece,” a manga-based pirate adventure; and “My Life With the Walter Boys,” based on the Ali Novak book of the same name. New YA films include “True Spirit,” about a real-life sailor; and “Damsel,” starring Millie Bobby Brown (“Stranger Things”). In a deal not previously announced, Netflix has a project in development inspired by Amber Dermont’s book “The Starboard Sea.”

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These projects join Netflix’s existing teen, tween and 20-something content such as “Shadow and Bone,” “Heartstopper,” “Never Have I Ever” and “The Kissing Booth” trilogy.

The get-them-while-they’re-young strategy is not without risks and challenges. Younger consumers have limited budgets and are tech-savvy enough to drop a service quickly — 74% of them said they plan to quit a streaming service this year and sign up for another one, according to data firm Samba TV..

They’re also vocal on social media, a trait that can drive viewership when the chatter is positive — in the case of Jenna Ortega’s “Wednesday” dance, which became a TikTok phenomenon — and cause headaches when it isn’t.

But gaining customers’ loyalty during early adulthood could be invaluable in the long run, said Tom Nunan, a former studio and TV network executive. “The greater goal, of course, is just to keep those eyeballs train[ed] onto Netflix as those people watching Netflix go from being young adults or teenagers into adulthood.”


Cast member from the series "Outer Banks," Madison Bailey at Poguelandia
Madison Bailey at Poguelandia.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Fans use their smart phones to photograph cast members from the series "Outer Banks"
Fans use their smart phones to photograph cast members from the series “Outer Banks.”
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Netflix understands how CW-type programming can be a major draw. CW series such as “All-American” and “Riverdale” drew modest ratings on the broadcast networks but became full-blown hits once they were made available on Netflix. Five of the top six English-language shows on Netflix by viewing time are either YA or YA-adjacent. Viewers watched “Stranger Things 4” for more than 1.35 billion hours in its first 28 days. “Wednesday” ranked second at roughly 1.2 billion hours.

Executives credit this success to the universal themes of growing up, when everything, including first kisses, high school dances and sports competitions, feels life-and-death.

“It’s something that’s so relatable, whether you’re a young adult looking to be entertained by an experience you may be going through, or it’s from an adult point of view that is nostalgic or reflective and can be quite reminiscent of your coming-of-age experience,” said Peter Friedlander, Netflix’s vice president of scripted series for the U.S. and Canada. “That level of popularity expands beyond just the YA demographic, it’s really across our membership.”


Another benefit: Young adults have long been desirable to advertisers, an important factor as Netflix grows its cheaper tier that includes commercials.

There’s also an opening in the marketplace. The CW is now majority owned by Nexstar Media Group, a business of local TV stations that wants CW programming to deliver audiences that will stick around for its older-skewing local newscast.

Attendees dig for bullion coin at the Buried Treasure prop at Poguelandia.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Kiana Hendricks, 17, of Newport Beach, poses for a photo in a Volkswagen Bus prop.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Madelyn Kim, 16, right, of Irvine
Madelyn Kim, 16, right, of Irvine, gets a temporary tattoo of “Vlad + Val 4Ever” at the Kildare Tattoo station at Poguelandia.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)


Netflix plans to spend around $17 billion on content this year but declined to say how much of it will be spent on young-adult programming. Since 2020, the global demand for YA titles has more than doubled, while supply has risen about 50%, according to Parrot Analytics, a data firm that tracks interest in content by search traffic, social media mentions and other metrics. That suggests there’s still room in the market for more YA shows.

Rival streaming services also have gone after young-adult audiences. HBO Max rebooted “Gossip Girl” and aired “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” while HBO has won Emmys for the controversial “Euphoria.” Other such series include Amazon’s “The Summer I Turned Pretty” and Disney’s “Love, Victor.”

Edgy content focused on teens and kids can easily cause trouble. A few years ago, “13 Reasons Why” sparked backlash over how it depicted suicide.

Jinny Howe, a vice president of drama series at Netflix, said the streamer takes its responsibility seriously when it comes to topics such as self-harm, which comes up in “Ginny & Georgia,” about a mixed-race daughter and her mother. After an episode that shows Ginny burning herself with a lighter, a message appears giving viewers a website to visit if they are struggling with thoughts of self-harm. The show also took care in how it handled conversations between Ginny and her therapist.

“We worked very closely with Mental Health America on ‘Ginny & Georgia,’ and we took this responsibility incredibly seriously in terms of an authentic portrayal,” Howe said.


Some of Netflix’s shows have a little edge — like “Sex Education” — but executives said one of their sweet spots is having YA shows that families can watch together. Such shows could avoid much of the dark and sexually explicit content that parents find alienating about series like “Euphoria.”

The category also has become increasingly diverse. In Netflix’s fantasy series “Shadow and Bone,” heroine Alina was changed from the book version to be part Shu, a race that is considered the enemy of her home country. Actor Jessie Mei Li who portrays Alina, is half Chinese.

“Fans of the show who I’ve met in the street and who are East Asian themselves [have] just been incredibly emotional about it,” Li said. “I don’t think I realized actually how much of an impact it would have on some people.”

Some writers of young-adult programming, including “Heartstopper” creator Alice Oseman, were attracted by the opportunity to tell diverse stories to Netflix’s 231 million subscribers. Oseman’s series, based on their graphic novel, tells the story of two British teenage boys falling in love, with one of them discovering his sexual orientation.

“That was really important in the themes of the story,” Oseman said. “It’s a queer story for young people, and seeing that all around the world would be a really impactful and powerful thing.”


Jenny Han, author of the “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” series and an executive producer on the movies on Netflix, said she felt supported as a creator.

“I felt like they really respected my voice as a storyteller and understood the audience for the story and how I wanted to reach those people,” said Han, who also created the upcoming “XO, Kitty.”

Three guys relaxing
Caleb Galston, 19, left, of Boston, John Estess, 20, of San Diego, and Josh Shaolian, 20, of Los Angeles, take a break on a hammock.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Singer Elley Duhe performs
Singer Elley Duhe performs at Poguelandia.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Cast member from the series "Outer Banks," Carlacia (cq) Grant
Actor Carlacia Grant, center, takes selfies with fans.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)


“Outer Banks” was a particularly unexpected success. When the series premiered in April 2020, its cast was little-known. The idea for the show came from a photograph published in the Wall Street Journal of a darkened mansion in the Outer Banks during a power outage.

From those humble beginnings, the show has become popular enough to merit its own YA-palooza. At Poguelandia, Netflix previewed the third season of “Outer Banks” and announced that it had ordered a fourth.

“I had movies and TV shows and books and music like this when I was a teenager,” said “Outer Banks” actor Drew Starkey, 29, pointing to franchises such as “The Lord of the Rings.” “When you see characters that represent yourself onscreen, I think it makes you feel like you have a connection to the world around you.”

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The organizers wanted to create an event that would inspire viral social media moments. Attendees snapped selfies with the stars and got their photos taken in the driver’s seat of a replica of the show’s Volkswagen camper van; many filmed performances from musicians featured in the series.

“The intersection of entertainment and music is one of the tactics we’re using around this,” said Shelly Gillyard, Netflix vice president of marketing for the U.S. and Canada. “The artists are fans of the show. They have large followings as well and so we’re hoping ... we get new fans showing up for ‘OBX’ (‘Outer Banks’).”


The show’s co-creators said they were excited to interact with fans in person.

“When we first saw the plans for Poguelandia, we said, ‘This is what Walt Disney must have felt when Disney saw the plans to Disney World,’” said Shannon Burke, co-creator and an executive producer of “Outer Banks.”

The night closed with a performance from Khalid, 25, with hits including “Young Dumb & Broke” and “8TEEN.” The latter’s chorus, “I’m 18 and I still live with my parents,” might as well have been “I’m 18 and I still use my parents’ Netflix account.”