Nets think young but lure older

ABC, Fox, UPN drawing younger auds

With more dramas and fewer sitcoms in primetime, CBS, NBC and the WB all attracted an older audience this fall.

According to a preliminary release of TN Media’s annual report on network primetime median ages, the Eye, Peacock and Frog nets grew older than ever during 1999’s fourth quarter. But ABC, Fox and UPN managed to turn slightly younger.

CBS remains the oldest-skewing network, with a median age of 53.1, while the WB, at 28.7 years, is still the youngest.

The graybeards flocked fastest to NBC, which jumped 2.1 years, from a median age of 42.9 in 1998 to 45 this year. Just two years ago, at the height of its comedy craze, NBC’s median age was only 40.3.

But the Peacock’s wrinkled feathers aren’t surprising, given the web’s increase in dramas, which tend to skew older, and its decrease in sitcoms, which attract younger crowds.

“Providence,” with a median age of 51.5, is the network’s oldest non-news program, while new series “The West Wing” (50.4), “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” (48.9) and “Third Watch” (46.7) aren’t far behind.

The Peacock’s reliance on “Dateline NBC” five nights a week has also significantly aged NBC’s audience.

Alan Wurtzel, prexy of research and media development at NBC, admits the network grew a little older than he would have liked. But he said shows like “West Wing” deliver a more upscale audience, making the shows’ old skews easier to swallow.

“If you see this thing getting older year by year, then you’ve got a problem,” Wurtzel said. “But if one of the reasons you’re getting older is you have good shows that happen to have an older skew, you expect that.”

Over at CBS, network execs thought they had finally halted the aging process last year, when the Eye’s median age declined slightly to 52.5.

But just as with NBC, CBS’ reliance on new dramas such as “Judging Amy” (median age 53.3) and additional newsmags (a la “60 Minutes II,” with a median of 56.2) has again given the network a few more grey hairs.

At 53.1, CBS has hits its oldest peak since TN Media’s Steve Sternberg began studying the networks’ median ages in 1993.

Eye trouble

CBS’ demos continue to handicap the network in a marketplace where most advertisers continue to preach the key demo of adults 18-49 as gospel.

But given the Eye’s strength in total viewers, Sternberg said the network still hits a substantial number of young adults.

“It’s hard to get younger overnight,” Sternberg explained. “But I don’t know if it’s hurting them too much, because they’re doing well this year. It makes a lot more sense to concentrate on making a good show first and worry about demos later, because eventually they will come.”

As CBS attracts the older crowd, the WB still finds itself on the opposite end of the spectrum.

The weblet did age another 2.1 years this fall, but hasn’t fought its transition from adolescence to young adulthood.

“I’m sure they wouldn’t mind having a median age of 30,” Sternberg said. “As you expand to other nights, you can’t just appeal to teens. You have to get a little older, which they’ve been trying to do.”

Weblet grows young

With fewer hours and nights to program, emerging networks always have an easier time changing their median age. Just ask UPN, which dropped its median age this fall by 5.6 years — from 37.4 last year to 31.8 this year.

That’s on par with UPN’s median age of 31.7 in 1997, before the network’s ill-advised attempt to broaden its viewership last year. And it’s mostly due to “WWF Smackdown,” which pins a median age of just 23.2.

There’s less of a story at ABC and Fox, which both experienced a slight year-to-year decline in median age: ABC moved from 41.7 to 41.5, while Fox moved from 34.1 to 33.7.

ABC once again attracted the widest range of viewers, from “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” (median age: 30.1) to “20/20 Monday” (median age: 51.2).

As customary in recent years, the WB boasted primetime’s youngest-skewing show, “Popular,” with a median age of 22. CBS’ “Diagnosis Murder,” with a median of 57.2, was television’s oldest-skewing show for the second year in a row.

‘Hope’ greys

Among other juicy tidbits, “Chicago Hope’s” Thursday move aged the CBS series the most among all skeins, jumping 5.8 years from a median age of 48.4 to 53.8. NBC’s “3rd Rock From the Sun” turned back the clock the most to a median age of 41.9 from last year’s 45.4.

The median age study is helpful when it comes to investigating viewing trends — as with ABC’s faltering TGIF lineup. For the first time, none of the franchise’s shows boast a median below 30.

With TGIF’s viewership declining, it’s clear that kids continue to abandon the programming block.

The networks’ aging trend mirrors national demographics. As of Oct. 1, the median age in the U.S. was 35.6, up from 35.2 last year.

Demo redo?

Given the nation’s sprint toward old age, the day may soon come when advertisers and networks reassess their reliance on adults 18-49 numbers.

“We’re in the business of delivering audience to advertisers,” Wurtzel said. “If our clients insist on the 18-49 audience, we’ll do everything we can to deliver that. But one of the real questions needs to be how important on a consistent basis is 18-49?”

For now, marketers haven’t been swayed by the arguments, made mostly by CBS, that it’s time to focus on older demos.

“While a number of advertisers want 25- to 54-year-olds, and that probably will grow, many categories will still be 18-49 in target,” said Tim Spengler, senior VP, general manager, at Western Intl. Media. “Will Levi’s shift? Will Pepsi shift? Will Coke shift? If we’re paying for 18- to 49-year-olds, (the networks’ older median ages) can’t help.”

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