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TV comes to grips with aging process

NBC to discuss research on 'AlphaBoomers'

In 2011, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and other leading-edge members of the baby boomers — the massive post-war generation born from 1946 to ’64 — will do an amazing thing: They’ll turn 65.

For years, this eventuality has stared broadcast networks — indeed, the entire the media business — in the face, since 78 million people raised on the slogan “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” aren’t aging the way their parents did.

Nevertheless, it’s taken until now to get anyone but CBS to even acknowledge the topic. In years past when the Eye network broached the issue — and its research chief, David Poltrack, trotted out experts to discuss the matter — not only did the press exhibit at best marginal interest, but other networks dismissed CBS as looking for alibis to justify its older-skewing audience. Sure, they have to talk up alter-kockers. Who else is watching “Diagnosis Murder” and “Touched by an Angel?”

Last week, however, NBC announced a November presentation to discuss research on “AlphaBoomers,” which the announcement described as “the demographic that advertisers, marketers and media can’t afford to ignore.” Even without seeing the complete results it’s pretty clear NBC is trying to move the needle above a model where “Law & Order” viewers don’t drop off the media map at age 54; rather, recognizing AlphaBoomers would encompass a slightly older crowd — one that incidentally includes CEOs like Disney’s Robert Iger, CBS’ Leslie Moonves and Time Warner’s Jeffrey Bewkes, among others.

Of course, the first impulse will be to laugh off NBC’s initiative as a desperate network’s attempt to redraw the playing field, almost like a last-place runner suddenly insisting the finish line is really behind him. “Please, count people whose knees creak when they wake up — and their dogs. Don’t forget their dogs!”

Just because an argument is in someone’s self-interest, though, doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate or should interfere with good sense.

It’s not like this long-projected demographic wave comes as a surprise. But the graying population has coincided with aging upward by the broadcast audience, raising median ages for ABC, CBS and NBC to 49 or higher — meaning fully half their viewers fall above the arbitrary demo cut-off.

The strange part is networks have been jousting with advertisers over recognizing tune-in by young adults who time-shift programs using a DVR, like TiVo. The energy expended on this seems foolish, since most of those people zap through the ads, seeing only glimpses as they flash by.

A better use of the networks’ time would involve an orchestrated push to unlock at least some value from their older loyalists — just as they’ve lobbied to include out-of-home viewing in restaurants and hotels, which also goes uncounted.

This argument becomes even more persuasive as free TV becomes a thing of the past, as most people pay for broadcast stations, one way or another. There’s a hard-to-refute logic to the contention money doesn’t recognize Social Security numbers — and that the older population possesses more discretionary income than their kids.

The other networks will likely take a wait-and-see approach regarding NBC’s research. Notably, when CBS led the charge several years ago, its rivals (including NBC) haughtily dismissed any mention of total viewer numbers as the kind of alibi you’d expect from an old-fart network. Hey, just imagine how Fox News Channel and Hallmark feel.

As broadcaster profiles get older, TV execs need to jointly acknowledge demography is destiny — not merely because it’s good for business, but because resisting discrimination against those 55-plus happens to be the right thing to do. They could start by putting media buyers on the spot, publicly asking what it is their clients have against selling products to people born before 1960.

Speaking of the “Mad Men” decade, the infatuation with demos actually emerged then when upstart ABC creatively sought to bolster its status against established competitors CBS and NBC by touting a relatively new barometer in ad sales — namely, the number of younger people (and especially families) watching its shows. So there’s precedent for changing the yardstick.

Ultimately, the next chapter boils down to a simple question: Now that TV’s looking more wrinkled and gray, do broadcasters band together out of necessity, or keep pointing fingers out of habit?

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