The May rating sweeps are ostensibly a time for networks to put their best foot forward, trying to boost ratings to help affiliates. So what does it say that the survey that ended last week was bookended by events featuring sexagenarians: Bruce Jenner, 65, coming out as a transgender woman in an ABC interview (with 69-year-old Diane Sawyer); and David Letterman, 68, bidding farewell to CBS’ “Late Show” after 33 years as a latenight host?
Much has been made about age in the context of the presidential field, with Hillary Clinton destined to turn 69 shortly before the election. Of course, the Senate and Supreme Court are already crawling with people long past retirement age, so much so that it was major news when Harry Reid and Diane Feinstein — age 75 and 81, respectively — announced plans not to seek re-election.
Clinton, however, is emblematic of the leading edge of the baby boom generation, the 78 million people birthed from 1946 to ’64, a demographic cohort that is hardly going quietly into the good night, but rather heading into its traditional retirement years kicking, screaming and aerobicizing. In the process, they threaten to alter preconceived notions about aging, while running headlong into a media culture that exalts youth above all else.
Like politics, working in media isn’t backbreaking, at least not in the literal sense. And there have always been those who have bucked youth trends, from the “60 Minutes” gang — and indeed, TV news anchors in general — to prolific directors like Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen.
Nevertheless, television remains perhaps the most brutal medium in terms of Hollywood ageism, due to the long-enshrined calculation that adults under 50 are the coin of the realm among media buyers. The question is whether the lifestyle changes associated with boomers, coupled with a shifting economic model that favors more subscription-oriented viewing, might begin to erode those advertising practices and preconceived biases.
The baton-pass in latenight — ostensibly a younger person’s game, where Letterman hung on ’til now, and Jay Leno needed a shove to make way for the next generation — is only one example of how boomers differ from previous generations.
At this month’s upfront presentations, those unveiling the primetime lineups gave the requisite nods to Disney CEO Robert Iger and CBS chief Leslie Moonves, who each extended their contracts past retirement age last year to 2018 and ’19, respectively. When David Fanning, 68, the founding producer of “Frontline,” recently announced that he would hand over the reins to a younger colleague, it wasn’t to go sit on a beach somewhere, but rather to make documentaries himself.
For his part, Letterman was a huge admirer of Johnny Carson, who retired from “The Tonight Show” at 66, and seldom made public appearances thereafter. According to friends, that partly had to do with Carson having seen his comedic idols, like Jack Benny, hang on past their primes, an indignity Carson wanted to avoid.
Thanks to Letterman’s admiration for Carson, many have assumed he will follow a similar path. In the run-up to his farewell, Letterman hinted vaguely at future career plans beyond spending time with his family but merely offered jokes about it during his final program.
The irony is that older TV entertainers and executives are still predominantly judged by how many viewers they attract who are the ages of their children, grandchildren, or children by second or third marriages). An increasingly pay-to-view ecosystem — think HBO or Netflix — is impacting that formula, but thus far not in a seismic way.
And while there are parallels in the exits of Letterman and Carson, the former has signed off during a different era — one in which many of retirement age aren’t eager to step aside. Whatever Letterman’s future holds, the media appear destined to face formidable resistance in trying to lower the professional boom on boomers.