Limiting value of older viewers undercuts broadcasters' bottom line

The initial temptation is to join in joking about older audiences watching CBS, Fox News Channel or the Sunday-morning chatshows. It’s a cheap laugh line to refer to CBS’ new drama “Blue Bloods” as “Blue Hairs,” or, as a colleague put it, “Magnum AARPI.”

Yet it’s a peculiar media environment indeed that actively dismisses its best customers and keeps reminding any who bother to listen — with or without hearing aids — how painfully undesirable they are.

Such are the “empty calories” of older demographics.

The question is, how much longer can networks afford to participate in a system that disenfranchises — and discounts — so much of their audience? And while haggling with advertisers about incorporating DVR results — pushing to recognize additional tune-in from time-shifted viewing — are execs ignoring a more obvious battlefield: the huge audience whose attention is perceived as worthless?

Once again, the new TV season has found the broadcast nets struggling to gain traction. Moreover, among shows posting reasonably good overall ratings — such as CBS’ aforementioned “Blue Bloods,” a copshow starring Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg — the appeal is pretty geriatric, with three-quarters of its viewers registering at 50 or older, based on Nielsen data.

Questioning the wisdom and rationale behind effectively disenfranchising those above 50 is hardly new. Indeed, the Norman Lear Center at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism hosted a 2003 conference titled “The Tyranny of 18 to 49,” during which author Neal Gabler derided the emphasis on so-called young-adult demos as “an absurdity that dominates the contemporary cultural landscape. It is not 18- to 49-year-olds who really tyrannize America. It is the fiction developed around them by advertisers and programmers that tyrannizes.”

The imperative to address and amend this arbitrary barometer, however, appears to be growing, as the audience for programs like “CSI” and “Dancing With the Stars” — both with a majority of viewers over 50, and a median viewing age around 57 — underscores the millions whose patronage is discarded.

Moreover, this discrimination is mostly accepted without question by media outlets — including consumer newspapers every bit as elderly as cable news — that readily buy into the “holy grail” of younger demos.

A few facts are indisputable: The U.S. population continues to get older. In addition, as researchers like Ken Dychtwald have documented, the baby-boom demographic — the oldest of whom are nearing retirement age, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — is altering long-held conceptions about aging.

Despite the networks’ best efforts, broadcast television’s age profile also keeps edging upward. Breaking down the first two weeks of the season, CBS (55), ABC (52) and NBC (49) all have median ages that leave at least half their audience above the magic age-49 cutoff.

In recognition of these trends, TV news has already adjusted to a higher rung on the demographic scale, 25-54, reflecting its older profile. Still, even with more network spots being sold against that equally arbitrary category, the problem remains: excluding the networks’ most frequent viewers, perversely, in part because they are deemed too easy to attract.

Newspapers, meanwhile, dutifully report on younger demos, even if the disclaimers woven into their stories — “the 18-to-49-year-old group that NBC considers the definition of rating success,” as the New York Times put it — must sound strange to casual readers who in print, especially, predominantly see 50 in the rearview mirror.

It was the Times, by the way, that used “empty calories” to describe Glenn Beck’s Fox News program, meaning the host “draws great ratings but is toxic for ad sales.”

Beck, however, is toxic because the host expresses controversial views. By contrast, CBS regularly dishes up a four-course meal in terms of total viewers tainted by an older-demo diet.

An analysis commissioned by the Lear Center seminar noted that the media’s preoccupation with younger adults supersedes the interests of “the most habitual and loyal television viewers” in pursuit of an idealized demographic with “little basis in reality.”

Competitive as they are, networks still like to downplay rivals’ older-skewing programs, but now that they all look older, the joke’s increasingly on them. Then again, raising the issue of unlocking the value in an older audience has always been a nonstarter among media buyers and a perceived alibi in network circles, meant to obscure deficiencies in drawing younger viewers.

With broadcasters collectively showing more wrinkle lines, one wonders if they’ll be forced to change their tune, as opposed to clinging to those great knee-slappers about old-fart TV — even as they gray themselves out of the green.

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