Older folks just don't matter anymore to the TV biz

The Wall Street Journal recently published a noteworthy error in an article about NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” stating that the modestly rated show was attracting about 4 million viewers — half as many as its lead-in, the surprise hit “Heroes.”

One problem: “Studio 60″ has been drawing just under 8 million viewers lately, and “Heroes” well over 14 million. As for the millions watching who were inadvertently erased, their crime is that they don’t happen to fall within the 18-to-49 age bracket employed to negotiate advertising rates.

Sure, it was a simple omission, but one fraught with symbolism. After all, the industry regularly disenfranchises an older audience whose patronage can’t readily be sold to media buyers, and press coverage is complicit to the extent that reporters opt not to question this state of affairs. Indeed, TV execs frequently speak strictly of a show’s delivery “in the demo” — meaning the 18-49 category — while professing never to consider total viewership because it’s a figure that can’t be “monetized.”

That older consumers and actors — particularly women — tend to disappear from the media dialogue provided the basis for a discussion last week sponsored by Women in Film and the Screen Actors Guild. The occasion was a screening of “Invisible Women,” a half-hour documentary that chronicles how actresses fall off the casting radar once they have the temerity to turn 40.

The personal stories within the project resonate with emotion, as actresses relate being forced to pursue second careers and losing their industry health benefits due to the absence of roles. As one-time “Just the Ten of Us” star Deborah Harmon puts it, upon reaching a certain age, “It was like I got pink-slipped and no one told me.”

The ironic timing of the forum was hardly lost on the audience, coming not long after Nancy Pelosi, 66, came one step closer to becoming Speaker of the House — and with Hillary Clinton, 59, anointed a likely frontrunner among potential Democratic presidential candidates. For that matter, the possible GOP standard-bearers in 2008, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, are currently 70 and 62, respectively.

Admittedly, the industry still provides the occasional showy role for a mature woman, even if it seems like all of them are played by Helen Mirren. Undeniably, though, the tyranny of younger demos has dictated that producers “go younger” on the casting side, which explains why so many 20-something characters are paired with 30-something moms — a scenario comically reenacted on the most recent “Desperate Housewives,” when Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) attempts a modeling comeback.

Susan Davis, one of “Invisible Women’s” producers, has cited a need for the kind of old-fashioned activism baby boomers learned during the 1960s, with actresses lobbying networks and sponsors to recognize their plight. Frankly, I’d argue that full hearts are no match for full wallets, which requires demonstrating to network and studio brass that there is money to be made by tapping older talent — whether that’s Sally Field helping carry ABC’s new drama “Brothers & Sisters” or audiences exhibiting a willingness to pay to enjoy veteran stars in movies such as “The Notebook.”

A few things, however, should be beyond dispute, beginning with the premise that ageism exists. Equally incontestable is the fact that today’s over-40 crowd bears scant resemblance to their parents, as baby boomers — encompassing those age 42 to 60 — approach “the golden years” kicking, screaming, aerobicizing, and spending disposable income like drunken thieves.

The latest evidence in this regard comes via a blatantly self-serving survey conducted on behalf of Viacom’s boomer-targeted cable net TV Land, which found that many boomers are irritated by TV’s preoccupation with younger audiences. It’s a big “Duh” moment, but TV Land senior VP of research Tanya Giles is nevertheless right when she says the generation birthed after World War II and before the Great Society is “tired of being seen through an antiquated prism of what it means to be over the age of 40.”

Eventually, a sense of balance must be restored that acknowledges this new reality. Until then, screenwriter Larry Gelbart — another voice of wisdom featured in “Invisible Women” — proposes an easy if not necessarily appetizing solution to defeating ageism: “Die young.”

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