Nets can't always monetize older-skewing successes

The movie business has entered that annual window when the tastes of older audiences really matter, reflecting those people who both vote for the Oscars and decide to see films based on that endorsement.

The television calendar has no direct equivalent, though the major networks and a number of cable channels have good cause to wish it did.

Once, CBS was a lonely island in terms of programs where more than half the viewers clocked in at 55 or older. That’s a significant plateau, since advertisers primarily negotiate buys based on adults age 18-49 and 25-54, meaning the network gets little or no credit, financially, for most of an older-skewing program’s audience.

Today, every network can point to CBS-like hits — where the total-viewer count, buoyed by the patronage of those qualified to join the AARP, far outstrips the hallowed 18-49 demographic.

The latest conspicuous addition to the gray power movement would be “Harry’s Law,” an NBC drama from producer David E. Kelley starring 62-year-old Oscar winner Kathy Bates. Like “Blue Bloods” — CBS’ copshow featuring 65-year-old Tom Selleck — the show has a median viewer age near 60 (meaning half the audience falls above that level and half below), with only about a quarter of viewers in the 18-49 bracket.

Long known to its dismay as the alter kocker network, CBS has as many regular programs with a median age of 50 or higher — 20 in all, including nearly all its crime shows — as ABC, NBC and Fox combined. Still, the fact that 40 current primetime series register above that plateau — including ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” and “Castle,” NBC’s “Law and Order” programs, and Fox’s “Bones” and “Human Target” — demonstrates how increasingly common this trend has become.

Of course, compared with broadcast news and the cable information channels, the broadcast networks look like relative whippersnappers. While broadcasters have inched upward, their median ages remain far lower than outlets like Fox News — where 61-year-old Bill O’Reilly can honestly say he’s younger than more than half his audience — and Hallmark Channel.

The interesting question is how networks other than CBS will handle programs with these kind of demographic profiles. If a series is wholly rejected by viewers, that’s easy: You cancel it. But what happens when a show attracts 10-12 million viewers — a “hit” by today’s standards, strictly in terms of cultural reach — but only a small portion of that audience is salable under the current ad-supported system?

For starters, networks might try to change the yardstick. CBS has long touted the importance of the Baby Boom generation — whose eldest members have begun turning 65 — while NBC recently presented research about the buying power and purchasing habits of “AlphaBoomers,” those age 55-64, typically judged by advertisers to be too set in their ways to try new products, without going quite so far as to prod media buyers to ante up for that demo.

Advertisers, however, will give ground on that front grudgingly, and despite their mutual interest in wringing additional value out of an aging audience, the networks — which haven’t exhibited any ability to act in concert — have little hope of making serious inroads on a piecemeal basis.

That places older-profile series and their networks in a difficult bind, at least in the near term. On the one hand, anything that can connect with more than 10 million viewers in a fragmented marketplace must be doing something right. Yet if sales departments can’t sell these shows, sheer tonnage probably won’t be enough to sustain them.

CBS, at least, learned a lesson the hard way in the mid-1990s, when the network canceled “Murder, She Wrote” — a poster child for older-skewing dramas — and sought to introduce a younger lineup, populated by programs like “Central Park West.” After a management shift, the Eye network returned to a more traditional crime formula and became the leader in total audience, eventually catching up in younger demos — in part because the competition sagged to meet it.

As for older people patronizing movies, AARP magazine announced that its 10th annual Movies for Grownups Awards will be held Feb. 7 and honor Robert Redford with a lifetime achievement award.

There’s no corresponding ceremony for television, because despite the nation’s shifting demographics, it would still have to be called the Programs Our Sales Dept. Can’t Monetize Awards.

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