Media hit potholes running the demo derby

HEY 19, are you reading this? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Media outlets are obsessed with the youth market — a preoccupation that doesn’t apply solely to television and movies. Consider New York Times editor Bill Keller’s recent statement that the paper wants to beef up cultural coverage as “an entry point for the younger readers we’d all like to attract.”

Translation: Young people care about Britney Spears more than they do about Dick Cheney, unless he looks better in spandex than I (try not to) imagine.

On paper, such pronouncements possess a rudimentary logic. For TV, it’s hard to ignore the mandate to reach the group advertisers covet, while newspapers and magazines — faced with declining circulation — understandably want to invest in their future.

How to best make that investment, alas, is another matter, and I can’t help but think some enterprises are banging their corporate heads into a stone (and in some instances, stoned) wall by dumbing down and diluting their product in pursuit of a too-elusive target.

Granted, a few enlightened youngsters can be lured into the tent with these strategies, but does that gain justify the trade-off if older audiences for news and entertainment — and I’m talking 35-plus, not CBS’ “65 to dead” contingent — becomes alienated in the process? It’s not such a far-fetched scenario.

FOR STARTERS, there’s a legitimate question whether Gen-X-Y-Zers are available from a news perspective. Speaking to an industry group last week, I noticed a lot of nodding heads after mentioning that I never so much as glanced at the newspaper’s “Real Estate” section before buying a house.

In other words, eschewing news isn’t unique to today’s younger generation, though the explosion of distractions, from DVDs to Xbox, hasn’t helped. Because they have less to lose and a longer time to lose it, teens and young adults have always been news-resistant unless a close-to-home event intervenes. (Having President Carter reinstate registration for the draft the year I turned 18 woke me up right quick.)

Media outlets nevertheless seem to think that by fluffing up news with pop culture and T&A, the young will make like the rats in Hamelin. Yet just look at the May sweeps, when ratings for both Los Angeles local morning shows, Ringling Bros.’ “KTLA Morning News” and KTTV’s “Good Day L.A.,” plummeted over 25% versus 2003. Moreover, it’s not as if those viewers went elsewhere, as overall TV viewing in those hours fell by 9%.

The same myopia assails primetime, as older actors are marginalized and off-kilter plots strangled in favor of derivative teen soaps, where the kids look 24 and their parents look 28. The schism has felt even wider than usual sampling Fox’s summer lineup as well as the latest crop of so-called reality shows, which so doggedly chase young viewers as to post the equivalent of a “No trespassing” sign to the 18-to-49 age bracket’s upper quadrant.

Denizens of cable’s alphabet soup — A&E, GSN, AMC — have implemented similar makeovers, often discarding well-defined brand designations with tepid results. For while MTV has made a business out of a limited demographic bandwidth, that slice is hardly bountiful enough to sustain the rest of a hungry media world.

NEVERTHELESS, the pandering to youth is reflected not only in what media companies do (think ABC News’ “Weddings” specials), but what they don’t do. A recent Pew Research Center survey of journalists found an overwhelming percentage agree that news outlets devote “too little attention to complex stories” due to financial pressures — central among them being the pressure to get younger.

Those marching orders also place entertainment execs in a difficult bind, throwing personal taste out the window. Even the folks ordering this stuff frequently look at it and shrug, asking privately if it’s merely that we’re “getting old.” The truth, of course, is that for such narrowly drawn projects, we are.

Ultimately it’s a question of balance, meaning network lineups, newscasts and even print outlets can reach out to a non-traditional audience so long as they don’t go plummeting overboard in their quest to emulate Ponce de Leon.

The problem is that in surveying the rocky seas tossing the media hither and yon, I already see a lot of hands in the water, frantically waving as they go down, down, down.

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