Slowly but surely, TV offering 50-plus content

If demography is destiny, then the long-neglected 50-plus audience might eventually have its day, or at least a place to call its own in a ruthlessly youth-oriented TV landscape.

The last few weeks, in fact, have brought uncharacteristically good news from a media standpoint to beleaguered older demos.

Most notably, AARP Publications inked a multiyear deal with WGBH Boston to create TV programming “relevant to the 50+ demographic” for public television, with the first special planned for next spring. A rare commercial venture aimed at older adults, Retirement Living TV, recently tapped former Disney exec Charles Hirschhorn as its chief creative officer.

TV Land announced a series searching for the next great supermodel “35 and older” — an almost comically wide swath, admittedly (one suspects the winner will be 36, not 63), which nonetheless acknowledges life after 34. Meanwhile, Jane Alexander and David Selby, both in their 60s, play a couple that enjoys a graphically sexual relationship in the upcoming HBO series “Tell Me You Love Me.” Finally, a New England Journal of Medicine study found that older people remain interested and engaged in sex, though Associated Press’ description of 57-to-85 year olds as “surprisingly frisky” reflects the condescension that tends to creep into such accounts.

If these items seem at best loosely connected, one central thread ties them together: Nielsen’s latest U.S. TV universe estimates for the 2007-08 season, in which adults 55 and older were the only demographic segment to post sizable and disproportionate gains. In fact, the 55-64 age bracket surged almost 4% versus the previous year, whereas two groups that make media buyers salivate — teens and 18-24-year olds — actually exhibited minor declines.

With nearly 70 million people 55-plus accounting for 31% of the adult population, that’s an awful lot of eyeballs to ignore. The graying of the U.S. is even more pronounced viewed over two seasons, with the 55 and over contingent growing by more than 5%, versus a gain of less than 1% for the 18-49 segment.

Undeniably, what gerontologist Ken Dychtwald has labeled the “age wave” as baby boomers get older continues rippling through society like a snake swallowing a pig. Yet even this inexorable trend has done little to shake the preoccupation with younger demos — in part because they’re big consumers of advertiser-friendly categories like beer, soda and fast food, who advertisers want to hook young and hang onto for decades.

Still, the overdue alliance between AARP and PBS represents something of a breakthrough, as well as a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on commercial broadcasting’s feet-dragging in addressing the needs and interests of older audiences.

“It’s a natural avenue for us to follow,” says Laurie Donnelly, exec producer for WGBH Lifestyle Prods., citing public TV’s mandate to be an “all-inclusive outlet” committed to “serving the underserved.”

There’s a degree of symmetry to PBS recognizing the value of 50-plus viewers, since for years public TV stood apart through its commitment to educating kids and preschoolers. As TV has grown more segmented and competitive, however, there are now dedicated channels devoted to tykes.

Appealing to older viewers thus represents one of the clear-cut ways for public TV to distinguish itself and justify its existence, as opposed to diving elbow-deep into the media scrum for younger demos. That’s especially true now, after several channels that once competed with PBS by offering more prestigious documentaries and exploration of the arts — specifically A&E, TLC and Bravo — have all abandoned those elevated pursuits, the better to chase the hallowed 18-49 demo with reality TV shows.

As a purely selfish aside here, anything that mitigates the inordinate cultural influence of teens is advisable. For while they might grow up to be wonderful people, collectively they have truly awful taste, if the results of the recent “Teen Choice Awards” are to be believed. Does anybody really want a group that bestows three awards on “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” dictating our cultural direction? Yo ho, oh no.

WGBH, meanwhile, is already planning its first AARP special, “Caring for Your Parents,” which will be augmented by a multimedia and online campaign. Although Donnelly says that the effort uses TV “to its best possible ability,” she also concedes regarding such service-oriented programming, “It’s not sexy television.”

Clearly not, but if PBS and a few others can begin demonstrating there’s real value (and for commercial enterprises, profit) in this arena, rest assured, it’s the kind of television that will suddenly look surprisingly frisky.

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