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Courting youth means a few cuts

IN AN EFFORT TO ATTRACT younger readers, all positive reviews will heretofore include the phrase “gettin’ jiggy,” anyone below CEO level will be referred to as “Yo, dawg,” and the media will simply be known as “My peeps with the processors, word.”

This would become annoying rather quickly, but hey, all progress comes with a price — as evidenced by the trade-off entertainment franchises are making in their attempts to stay relevant, and profitable, by reeling in youthful demographics.

These compromises often go unnoticed, but as pressure to get younger squeezes even our most venerable institutions, push inevitably leads to shove — the most recent flap being the largely fabricated brouhaha over Chris Rock’s selection to host the Academy Awards.

Yet the real peculiarity here is how each new wrinkle in the ongoing battle against wrinkles manages to conveniently forget the previous skirmish. After all, MTV wouldn’t have produce last year’s Super Bowl halftime festivities if there wasn’t a perceived need to be more hip, leading to Janet Jackson’s overexposure and the brouhaha that ensued. Similarly, enlisting Rock represents a sign that Oscar organizers want to shed their staid image by exhibiting more edge.

News hasn’t been immune either, with network brass pondering ways to render “The CBS Evening News” more appealing to the under-50 set, which includes potentially shelving the single-anchor format once Dan Rather steps aside. And while critics have reacted as if this amounts to reinventing the wheel, one need only scan local TV to witness rock ‘n’ roll newscasts so devoid of news value as to make “The Daily Show” resemble “Nightline.”

Even the Miss America pageant — historically a pretty sedate affair, except for the occasional contestant with a checkered past and/or Penthouse spread — is contemplating a makeover that would transform the event into an elimination game along the lines of “Survivor,” with a better swimsuit competition.

So everyone is lurching in this direction to varying degrees. The problem is that nobody has been courteous enough to publicly explain why. The still-vibrant older demo weaned on Johnny Carson hosting the Oscars and Walter Cronkite in the anchor chair never received a formal memo saying, “Thanks for the memories, but if your grandkids don’t start watching us soon, we won’t be able to sell advertisers on underwriting this little cotillion.”

Boiling matters down to their core, however, that’s the simple truth. Meanwhile, nips and tucks to tilt the median age scales from CBS toward the WB have a way of irking traditionalists who like Academy Award-nominated songs belted out by Celine Dion, not Courtney Love.

Indeed, it’s difficult to make shows younger without breaking a few rules, or at minimum bending them. Media-saturated teens and young adults are accustomed to fast-paced fare and looser standards than their parents (it’s not just inner-city kids buying profanity-laced rap albums) — the latest spoke in the grand wheel of rebelliousness.

Remember, too, that the Jackson flap was a question of context, not content. If the pop star and Justin Timberlake played peek-a-boob at MTV’s Video Music Awards, no one would have batted an eye, much less called for a cultural jihad. Ditto for Rock’s offhand reference to straight black guys shunning the Oscars, which would have passed without comment if he hadn’t been hosting the show.

Unfortunately, the harsh realities of the media’s preoccupation with youth never sound very good when separated from quarterly earnings reports and distilled into English.

Loosely translated, though, current marching orders state that alienating a segment of the older audience is acceptable in exchange for luring a younger crowd into the tent. In that respect, the hubbub about red states vs. blue states, “family values” advocates vs. Hollywood heathens, obscures the tension between what the young are perceived to want and the old way of doing things.

So sift through Rock’s outrageousness, Jackson’s underwear drawer and even that sexy local weathercaster in a low-cut top, and the elusive nugget being sought is none other than Ponce de Leon’s formula, by way of Madison Avenue.

Of course, this is unlikely to sit well with elected officials, many of whom fall into the 50-plus age bracket. Still, at least the pro-business lobby might respond with an honest explanation — something like, “We apologize if our show offends you, congressman, but it’s actually your kids we want to reach, and the less you like it, the better the chances are that they will.”

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