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Boomers are goners as they hit TV’s gray wall

HOLLYWOOD — I just don’t get it.

The advance wedge of the baby boomer generation has just crossed the demographic divide and hit age 55, yet television is still largely ignoring such viewers in their relentless pursuit of the young, the hip and the sophisticated.

Once viewers pass the age-54 marker they fall off the radar screen of the hordes of 25-year-old media buyers who nowadays determine where America’s ad dollars get placed.

But as the 25-54 demo thins out, you have to wonder how the networks and buyers can afford to ignore the burgeoning 55+ category. After all, viewers over 55 clearly have money to spend, and they do watch TV — when they’re represented on TV.

Not only are older viewers invisible to advertisers, but geezers are also few and far between on the smallscreen.

It may not be quite as bad as Peter Bart pointed out last week in his column about the movies, but finding an old codger, say, on latenight TV is well-nigh impossible: Astronaut cum politico John Glenn had to go to the moon a second time to rate a booking on Jay Leno.

The daytime soaps have been falling all over themselves to entice the younger set, introducing more outlandish themes and alienating their core older female viewership.

And, “Millionaire” aside, reality shows from “Survivor” to “Fear Factor” to “The Bachelor” are almost uniformly pitched to teenyboppers.

Actress Doris Roberts (Ray’s mother on “Everybody Loves Raymond”) recently assailed Hollywood ageism in front of a Congressional committee, laying the blame squarely at the feet of the industry’s ever-younger leaders.

Depictions of the elderly are often offensive, she pointed out, while the hiring of older actors and writers who might be able to positively impact storylines is increasingly rare.

The new fall primetime lineups show only minimal signs of trying to be more inclusive.

“If older viewers show up, fine, but it’s not that we would actively go after them,” is the oft-heard mantra.

Practically every new sitcom (think “What I Like About You” and “The Grubbs”) and most of the dramas (think “Fastlane,” “Firefly” and “Push, Nevada”) are targeted for that ever-elusive but adamantly sought-after age group, the 18- to 34-year-olds.

“Everwood,” with Treat Williams as a widower trying to rebuild his life in rural Colorado, “Presidio Med,” which toplines Blythe Danner and Dana Delany as female doctors, and “American Dreams,” which centers on parents and their teens in the contentious ’60s, however, do try to straddle multi-generational divides.

Katz programming chieftain Bill Carroll, who advises local stations on what shows to buy, says it’s left to newsmags like “60 Minutes,” critical faves like “Law & Order,” gameshows like “Wheel of Fortune,” and upscale sports like golf to be the only geezer-pleasers.

But, he notes, folks over 50 spend more of their time in front of the tube than any other age group.

For years advertisers, marketers and webheads have held to the dictate that older consumers represent no economic value, so it’s pointless to flog products and services to them.

In fact, companies spend 95% of their marketing and ad budgets on the under-50s, clinging to the outmoded idea that the mature market is made up of stingy old-timers set in their ways. But in fact they represent the largest block of discretionary spending in the U.S.

And products designed expressly for older consumers — think high-fiber foods, arthritis-friendly kitchen utensils, ergonomic chairs, ocean cruises — are being embraced not only by the older set but by younger consumers as well.

One lesson for webheads: What appeals to the old can also appeal to the young; what appeals to the young rarely is inclusive of the old.

Older consumers are, after all, healthier and wealthier than ever before in history, and with baby boomers moving into that age bracket it’s likely that demo will want to shop and party right to the end.

CBS’ longtime ratings and research guru David Poltrack is keenly aware of the disconnect.

“While marketers are starting to get it, the media-buying community is definitely behind the curve,” he says, pointing out that this year some 3.6 million Americans will turn 55 and some 4 million youngsters will turn 18.

That’s the largest contingent moving out of the 25-54 demo and the largest contingent moving into the 18-plus demo in history. In other words, the 18-54 demo is changing in composition and weight, with the segs at either end of the spectrum representing the bulk of potential viewers.

Poltrack believes that in the future targeted demos will have to be defined by something other than simply age and/or that the demo categories themselves will have to be extended.

The challenge for CBS, Poltrack says, is “to try to get younger while not alienating our older viewers.” NBC execs are mostly worried about what happens after “Friends” goes away, and relating to older demos is probably the last thing on beleaguered ABC’s mind.

While media buyers and webheads continue to be oblivious to or in denial about the aging of the population, futurists are flooding the market with books on the subject.

Gerontologist Ken Dychtwald’s “Age Power: How the 21st Century Will Be Ruled by the New Old,” for example, redefines older people according to life stages, including empty-nesters, grandparents or newly single folks. Books like that should be required reading for TV and ad execs alike.

After all, these youthful tastemakers will eventually be moving into new life stages themselves: Gen Ex anyone?

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