Nets face gray matter

Webheads embrace aging baby boomers as under-40 set spurns their drama series

Despite what they might be telling their advertisers, network honchos may have turned their backs on those elusive, and apparently disengaged, young viewers.

That’s at least the subtext of the latest figures which demonstrate that the Big Six have “aged up” noticeably in the last few years….

It’s going to take more than a Botox injection and dye job to make the networks look young again.

Median ages at five of the six broadcast webs have grown older this fall, particularly at NBC and the WB. And over the course of a decade, audiences sport more gray hair — and fewer nose rings — across the board.

The Peacock and the Frog are now the oldest they’ve ever been, while ABC and CBS are again creeping up after seeing their median ages dip earlier this decade.

While Fox is holding stable, only UPN — which dropped the older-skewing “Star Trek” franchise — has managed to significantly age down this year.

In a business that prizes young viewers — in most cases, adults 18-49 — the nets’ pending AARP membership should be cause for concern. Yet most webheads say they’re not too surprised.

Perhaps that’s because the reason behind their creep toward retirement age is pretty clear: TV-hungry baby boomers aren’t getting any younger. And in their quest to still attract that crowd (think procedural dramas like “Law & Order”), networks are aging as well.

“It’s a function of society getting older,” says Fox program planning and scheduling exec VP Preston Beckman, who notes that boomers still consider network TV their primary entertainment source.

That’s just not the case for the under-40 set. While the outlook is even gloomier for newspapers and other traditional media, TV is caught up in the same new reality: Loyal auds aren’t young.

“Clearly the younger you are, the more options you feel you have — MTV, iPods, computers,” Beckman says. “That feeling that you have more choices, options, is inversely correlated with age. Network TV is just one of those options.”

As younger viewers sample less broadcast TV, the nets are catering less to them. New comedies like “My Name Is Earl” aren’t targeted at youthful eyeballs. Shows like “Desperate Housewives” are megahits, but not for the snot-nosed pack.

ABC is aging after axing its youth-driven “TGIF” lineup, “The Wonderful World of Disney.” NBC has gradually seen its median age rise as it cut its sitcom diet in favor of more dramas.

As a result, ABC’s median age (46.4) is the oldest it’s been since “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” threw the net an older lifeline. And NBC’s median age is at its highest level ever this fall — 49.4.

“They’ve been talking about nothing but 18-49 the past few years,” notes MagnaGlobal’s Steve Sternberg, who regularly tracks TV median age. “If their median age is near 50, they can’t be happy about it.”

But the Big 3 aren’t the only ones contending with a few more wrinkles. By airing more traditional crime and legal skeins, youth-minded webs Fox (“Killer Instinct”) and the WB (“Just Legal”) brought out the bluehairs.

The Frog’s jump — from 34 to 37.7 this year — was particularly dramatic, especially for a net that once prided itself on its twentysomething skew.

WB execs point out that its youthful “One Tree Hill” premiered late, and the now-canceled “Just Legal” tipped the balance. Once everything’s settled, the Frog expects to age only about a year — an acceptable goal, the net says, as it tries to broaden its viewership.

“It’s still early, and difficult to make any exact conclusions,” says the WB’s Rusty Mintz. “But generally younger networks (like WB and Fox) age up a year every year.”

That’s fine — to a point. And if networks are attracting more viewers as a whole, they can maintain strong 18-49 numbers even as they age.

But as long as dramas rule and comedies struggle, don’t expect a youth movement to emerge at any of the webs.

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