Contrary to popular belief, the demo mix of longrunning hits is remarkably stable as the shows age – good news in a season devoid of a single runaway hit.
The general assumption is that as a program begins to garner attention, it first draws younger viewers attracted to the latest trends; later on it draws older viewers, who remain loyal long after the young crowd moves on to the next hot prospect.
Only the zap-happy teenage audience consistently fits that theory. Consistency is most often the rule, not the exception, in a show’s demo makeup over the long haul.
In looking at specific examples, it’s necessary to examine the demo makeup of a show’s audience in terms of percentages rather than the actual numbers of viewers because of the continuing erosion of the network audience.
NBC’s Thursday hits, including “The Cosby Show” up to the arrival of “The Simpsons,” have been impressively steady in terms of demo composition. Four years ago, 47% of the audience for “A Different World” was in the 18-49 demo. For the last three years, that group has locked in at 50%.
“Cheers” has increased gradually in the 18-49′ s, from 54% to 56% over the same four years. (All percentages are based on figures from Nielsen Media Research.)
Though hourlong dramas generally skew older than sitcoms, 58% of the “L.A. Law” audience was in the 18-49 demo in 1990-91 – the fourth straight year at that same level.
Even a soap like CBS’ “Knots Landing,” with an audience that is nearly one-third 55-plus, breaks from the conventional wisdom: The 18-34 and 18-49 crowd make up more of its audience now than four years ago, while the 55-plus group has dipped from 32% to 29%.
Keeping its demos is especially crucial for a show like ABC’s “thirtysomething,” which relies on its 18-49 audience. For four straight years, that demo has made up two-thirds of the show’s audience.
ABC’s veteran sitcoms have an equally consistent score: For four years (1987-88 season through the 1990-91 season), the 18-49 demo for “Who’s The Boss?” has made up 49%, 49%, 50% and 49% of the total. For “Growing Pains,” the same demo group was 50%, 48%, 48%, 50%.
Even somewhat newer shows, while still growing in total persons, maintain their audience composition. “Designing Women” has held its 18-49 audience steady at 54%; “Married… With Children” has 61% of 18-49′ s, up from 59% four years ago.
Jim Curtin, v.p., director of programming services at HRP, says the trend toward older audiences exists, “if you look at the dead bodies instead of the live ones.” One recent corpse, “Dallas,” watched its 18-34’s drop from 30% in 1979-80 to 15% in 90-91, and its 18-49’s fall from 49% to 36%. Meanwhile, the 55-plus block climbed from 27% of the total in 79-80 to 37% six years later, and 48% in the prime-time soap’s final year.
When demo shifts occur in longrunning shows, network execs say changing competition usually is the direct cause. If a show is on its way up, other webs counterprogram demographically; after it is a hit for many years, competitors may perceive it as vulnerable and place shows to compete with it head to head.
The result, says David Poltrack, senior research v.p. at CBS, may give the impression that a change in demos was caused merely by the aging process. Bob Niles, senior v.p. of research at NBC, points out that the shift in the demos for “Cosby” came when its primary competition switched from “48 Hours” and “Father Dowling Mysteries” to “The Simpsons.”
From the 1987-88 season to the 1989-90 season, the 18-34’s climbed from 27% to 32% of “Cosby’s” total, and the 18-49’s jumped from 44% to 52%. Against “The Simpsons” this season, the numbers fell back to 27% and 46%, respectively, while kids and teens dropped from 29% in 1989-90 to 23% this year. The 55-plus group made up 25% of the “Cosby” crowd in 1987-88,22% in 1989-90 and 27% in 1990-91.
(Nielsen releases demos only for the last four years to avoid discrepancies with pre-people-meter measurements, but HRP’s Curtin had Nielsen numbers for nine years of “Cheers” and “Knots Landing” and seven of “Cosby” and “Who’s The Boss?” which show that the stability of a program’s demo makeup is consistent over its entire run).