Older-skewing shows creep back onto skeds

FOR THOSE CRITICS WHO LAMENTED the abandonment of older viewers at the start of the 1992-93 television season, guess what? The older viewers are being recognized after all.

Despite all the talk indicating that youth must be served, as America celebrates Veterans Day, youngsters like Raymond Burr, Peter Falk and Carroll O’Connor are all back on one or another prime time schedule–their return compelled by viewer rejection of new shows featuring younger, trimmer bodies.

Quietly, gradually, the networks have brought back older-skewing programs in time periods that were simply being ignored by viewers–ultimately deciding that an audience heavily skewed toward senior citizens, at least as a stop-gap measure, is better than no audience at all.

As a result, we have seventysomething Burr back on NBC Fridays as “Perry Mason,” replacing reality series and the twentysomething drama “The Round Table.” There’s Falk, as “Columbo,” replacing the crossed-out ABC dramas “Covington Cross” and “Crossroads.”

“In the Heat of the Night” joined the CBS lineup and immediately corralled vast numbers of older viewers, as did another former NBC series, “Matlock,” in its two-hour premiere last week on ABC. The alphabet web also called in two reality series for Monday, bumping “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” despite a perceived older skew and lack of enthusiasm for the form on Madison Avenue.

Granted, in the first two cases both scheduling strategies are merely designed to fill a hole (with low-cost movie repeats, at that) left by failed new series through the end of the calendar year, until the webs can marshal their forces for another, perhaps more aggressive attack in January.

It’s noteworthy, however, how quickly household ratings surged in some of those time periods once old favorites returned, even though key demographics were about the same as they had been for the lower-rated new shows. “In the Heatof the Night,” for example, attracted fewer adults 18-49 than “Melrose Place” in the same hour, despite a 50% higher household rating than that of the Fox Broadcasting Co. show.

SO WHAT’S THE LONG-TERM FALL-OUT of all this? Should we expect the networks, instead of developing clones of “Beverly Hills, 90210” for next year, to start working on shows with titles like “Mission Viejo, 93407?”

Hardly. The networks knew, going into the season, that the pursuit of the adults age 18-49 demographic would create its share of headaches, particularly in certain time periods, where there simply aren’t that many adults 18-49 watching.

As ABC research maven Alan Wurtzel has repeatedly pointed out, that prized demographic also happens to be the most fickle–the quickest to reject new series, the least likely to sample new shows, the most willing to use alternatives like cable and videos and, to crown it all, a group that watches less TV in general.

Unfortunately, they also happen to be the group that advertisers want, toward which the leading television advertisers target most of their products. They are , allegedly, also more receptive to advertising and less brand-loyal than their parents.

Television, of course, isn’t the only mass medium that plays to demographics. Movies target particular films to certain narrow audiences (the Geritol set isn’t too keen on the “Friday the 13th” series), while others are aimed at more sophisticated palates.

The difference is that in the theater an octogenarian’s $ 7.50 is worth the same as that of a teenager. In TV, it’s the advertiser who determines what a given set of eyeballs is worth, and they want fans of Madonna, not Kate Smith.

CBS, alone in the wilderness, has railed against the system, but it hasn’t denied the bias exists. Nor does its pronounced strategy–to go after the widest possible audience, and particularly upper-income viewers age 35-54–in any way undermine ABC and NBC’s decisions that they have opted to pursue 18- to 49 -year-olds, strictly for economic reasons.

One can argue with some merit that the networks have been too accepting of the advertising industry’s obsession with young adults, as well as too willing to allow their sales departments to dictate programming strategy. One can also argue that CBS’ protestations are somewhat self-serving, since its audience has historically been older than that of the other networks.

Nevertheless, in the long term, based on the inevitable proliferation of viewing alternatives on the horizon and the willingness of young adults to watch them, the networks will almost have to broaden their sales base to include older groups. That means either altering the perceptions of advertisers or actively seeking new advertisers interested more in tonnage than demographics.

Any change along those lines must occur gradually, and in the interim it seems obvious that the networks have to strike a balance between the economic justification for chasing 18- to 49-year-olds and the necessity to keep the lights on during hours when they can’t catch them.

The networks may have gone overboard, as CBS Entertainment president Jeff Sagansky put it, in “panting after teenagers” this fall, and with some of these older-skewing shows in place (“In the Heat of the Night,””Matlock” once it gets a series berth) the pendulum is swinging back to restore a more reasonable mix.

Still, financial considerations are hard to ignore, especially in a climate that has strained all advertiser-supported media. While the outright panting may have subsided a bit, then, if you hear faint sounds of heavy breathing in the halls of Burbank and Century City, don’t be surprised.

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