'Millionaire' slipping in younger demos

With the May sweeps kicking off tonight, ABC’s monster smash “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” continues to terrorize all competition in its path. But the Beast That Conquered Network TV may be starting to show a few gray hairs.

ABC hardly needs to phone a friend anytime soon. But the onset of daylight-saving time has taken its toll on young adult viewership at the webs this April — and the seemingly unstoppable “Millionaire” is no exception. “Millionaire’s” adults 18 to 49 Nielsen ratings have declined while its median age has risen. Couple that with the proven rule that gameshows skew older, and it appears “Millionaire” may not be invincible, after all.

“It’s still a juggernaut, but it certainly seems to be aging up in terms of adult 18 to 49 viewers,” said NBC Entertainment prexy Garth Ancier.

Now, as ABC enters sweeps with a “Millionaire”-heavy schedule, the million-dollar question is: Will the show grow older opposite increased programming geared toward young adults, or will the hubbub and stunts of sweeps, combined with strong ABC programming surrounding it, lure back younger viewers?

“Millionaire” averaged an 8.4 rating among young adults in April, down 14% from January through March. But the show’s shares — which this time of year probably tell a more accurate story — are down only 4% from the first three months of the year (23.5) vs. April (22.5).

As proof that young viewers are waiting until later in the evening to watch TV, “Millionaire’s” Tuesday night ratings (when the show airs at 8 p.m.) have dramatically jumped from the first to the second half-hour in recent weeks.

The show’s gradual decline in overall viewership in the last couple of months is not surprising given that viewership levels peak in January and gradually edge downward the rest of the season.

“While the ratings are going down, people are just watching less TV,” says Western International Media’s Todd Spengler. “The share of younger viewers is staying relatively flat. To me, that’s an important issue. I don’t want to write it off as the show has gotten too much older, given the PUT (people using television) issue.”

What’s more, ABC execs point to data showing that a number of TV’s other big hits have started to age this season. “Friends,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “ER,” for example, have taken even larger Nielsen hits from January to April.

“You can’t look at ‘Millionaire’ in a vacuum,” said ABC scheduling guru Jeff Bader. “When you look at all the top shows in TV, ‘Millionaire’ is down less than all of them.”

On the median age front, gameshows have always been considered a format more popular with older demos. “Millionaire” has so far bucked that trend — but even ABC execs would have to admit that the honeymoon can’t last forever.

While still a powerhouse in every demo, “Millionaire” has seen its median age grow from 44.1 in November to 46.7 in January, 48.4 in March and 50.9 in April, according to a rival web’s analysis.

“Shows tend to eventually settle down to what their natural constituency is,” said one rival network exec. “Gradually, the samplers drop out and the core audience is left. The profile for most game and quiz shows is an older profile. ‘Millionaire’ is simply settling into a more natural audience.”

But even Ancier admitted that, given the usual age pattern given to gameshows, “It’s quite astounding that they’ve held on to (younger viewers) this long.” He noted that execs outside ABC are “looking for trends” that might indicate any crack to the show’s foundation.

In the last month, “Millionaire” has begun to post losses that are disproportionately higher in key demos than in total viewers. For example, while it’s down in total viewers from January to April by a respectable 13%, its rating in adults 18-49 during the same time is down 26%.

“Millionaire” has lost ground on Tuesday to Fox among the youngest of viewers. In January and February, the quizzer routinely bested Fox programming in the Tuesday at 8 hour among teens, but that advantage has evaporated. Three weeks ago, the show’s 16 share in teens was only good enough to gain a tie with Fox; by April 18, Fox had pulled ahead of ABC and “Millionaire” by 4 shares (17 vs. 13).

The shares are moving in the other direction among older viewers, especially women. On Thursdays, for example, the share among women 50 and over has grown from the 32-34 range in early to mid-February to a 35 the first week of April and to a 37 last week. On Tuesdays, it hovered in the 35-37 range for most of February and March before shooting up to a 38 three weeks ago and a season-high 41 on April 18.

Vulnerable in key demo

Inside the key 18-49 demo, “Millionaire” appears most vulnerable among men 18-34. For example, UPN’s Thursday wrestling series “WWF Smackdown!,” which in February twice trailed “Millionaire” by 6 shares in men 18-34, closed the gap in March; by April 20, it finally topped the gamer (18 vs. 17).

Despite the slippage in some areas, “Millionaire” remains a powerhouse in adults 18-49. For the season, its three weekly editions rank third, fourth and fifth in the demo, while in adults 18-34 they’ve slipped a bit but are still seventh, eighth and ninth.

The quizzer is also a favorite of advertisers, who love its broad aud base.

Other quizzers age too

Primetime’s two other gamers, Fox’s “Greed” and NBC’s “Twenty One,” have also aged during the course of the season.

(Michael Schneider and Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)

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