Changing Channels: Attn. 18-49 demo: ’tis a baffled web you weave

HEY, ADULTS 18-49, WHERE the hell did you go?

Last year around this time, everybody was talking about the best way to appeal to you, the importance of attracting you, how advertisers (and therefore the networks) didn’t care about anybody but you.

So what happened? The networks threw a big party last fall, and you didn’t show up. According to Nielsen figures for the just-completed “official” September-through-April TV season, four-network viewing by women 18-49 (don’t lie, you know who you are) dropped 6% compared to last season, and the male audience in that demographic fell off just over 4%.

What kind of gratitude is this? You, who kept “Matlock” off ABC’s fall schedule, rewarded the network by failing to watch “Delta” and “Room for Two.” You, who convinced NBC to let go of “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Golden Girls,” turned up your noses at “The Round Table” and “Here and Now.”

Granted, the 1992-93 term boasted the highest Academy Award rating in a decade, best Super Bowl since 1987 and the top entertainment special (a.k.a., Michael Jackson’s weirdest home video) since 1983.

Still, when it came to being there on a regular basis — and to giving new series a chance — you punted.

In the process, you left your would-be paramours, the networks, to be mugged in the press for “abandoning” older viewers as part of a crass effort to woo younger types. CBS, which has always skewed older anyway, seized upon the situation to proclaim itself TV’s last bastion of broadcasting, accusing their rivals of “panting after teenagers” and pledging to make the world safe for programs that appeal to everyone — the Geritol set included.

For all their talk of love last spring, the networks are singing a different tune this year during the mating ritual known as development season. Even Fox Broadcasting Co. — which has based its success on shows that appeal largely to teens and the barely-out-of-college set — is trumpeting plans to expand its reach into the 35-49 bracket.

ABC executives, who had the best year in terms of holding onto the 18-49 contingent, even said that their mandate is to pursue your demographic vigorously, “except where we don’t.” In other words, ABC will seek younger viewers where it can find them, but on Thursday nights next fall, hasta la vista , babies.

NBC has made the most complete switch, in a whirling, 360-degree turn that would even impress the network’s biggest star, Michael Jordan. New West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer announced to advertisers in March that NBC’s goal will be a “relentless pursuit of eyeballs”– anybody’s, not just yours.

EVEN ADVERTISING AGENCIES, whose lust for 18-to-49-year-olds put you in such high demand, have taken potshots at last season’s full-court press to attract you. In their 1993-94 pilot guide, Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising says the networks have “recognized that their original role as broadcasters with broad-based programs — not niche programmers — is their best bet (and) they must develop programs with this in mind.”

Observations by media buyers need to be viewed warily, since they fulfill the dual role of handicapping the fall lineups and securing the best rates for their clients. These are the same people who criticize network programmers for not taking risks, then pull their advertising from any program more controversial than “Three’s Company.”

For that reason, no one will know until the upfront sales season ends just how sincere everybody is about their desire to broaden the spectrum beyond adults 18-49, or whether the policy offers financial incentives to justify its obvious ratings benefits.

For now, however, thanks to your fickleness, network honchos continue to engage in their demographic two-step: a combination of back-pedaling and side-stepping, with an occasional twist.

AFTERMATH: Los Angeles may have reason to rejoice at the calm that followed the verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial, but local TV and radio stations are left with some serious soul-searching to do.

Intent on providing “live” coverage when there was nothing much happening, stations engaged in a dizzying array of ridiculous man-on-the-street interviews at Burger King, on the corner of Florence and Normandie and anywhere else they could find someone with a pulse.

Granted, newspapers also conduct such interviews, but not “live.” In print, reporters have a chance to go through material and decide what to throw away and what to keep.

That can be done on TV, too, but it wouldn’t have the heat of being “live,” so we’re left with the babblings of any idiot who happens to stagger by sans the benefit of editing, reason or analysis. (One woman interviewed by a KNBC-TV reporter, in fact, seemed mentally unbalanced, which based on the level of the questions may have qualified her for anchor duty.)

Who are these people? Why do they deserve to have their unedited opinions splattered over the airwaves simply because the technology exists? These are some of the questions that should be asked, starting today. The immediate threat of widespread civil unrest may have come and gone, but the crisis in local news continues.

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