HOLLYWOOD — In the business of television, there’s no payout window for a statistic like median age, but it’s an interesting measuring stick nonetheless.
Of note heading into fall is that the nets that dominated the 2001-02 season — NBC and CBS — are also the oldest-skewing. And they figure to stay that way now that ABC has made an overt attempt to get younger.
Attracting viewers over 50, while not a priority of any net, has certainly boosted the overall audience levels of CBS and NBC. Conversely, webs like Fox and the WB, which perform well in their target demos but whose series are watched by relatively few viewers over 50, won’t likely challenge for the total-viewer crown anytime soon.
According to Nielsen estimates for the 2001-02 season, CBS remained the oldest net with a median age for all programming of 50.6 (virtually flat from last year’s 50.5), followed by NBC at 46.1 (up from 45.0), ABC at 45.6 (down from 46.6), Fox at 39.0 (up from 36.9), UPN at 33.9 (up from 33.6) and the WB at 31.1 (up from 29.0).
Of returning programs, CBS claims eight of the 10 oldest-skewing, led by grand-daddy “60 Minutes” at 59.7. NBC’s Friday tandem of “Dateline” and “Providence” also cracked the top 10.
The youngest returnees are Fox’s “King of the Hill” (25.9) and “Futurama” (26.1) and the WB’s “Dawson’s Creek” (27.5). Youngest on the Big Three are NBC’s “Fear Factor” (35.3) and ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney” (36.3).
While median age is certainly an interesting stat to gauge a network’s direction, keep in mind that the nation’s populace as a whole is older (up to a median age of 36 after hovering around 35 for several years) — meaning that there are simply more and more older viewers out there.
This helps explain why CBS, which had its most competitive season in nine years in the key demo of adults 18-49, actually edged up a tick in median age.
The biggest hits on CBS (“CSI,” “Survivor,” “Everybody Loves Raymond”) draw viewers of all ages, including a sizable chunk of adults 50-plus. Their median ages are thus inflated even though the shows are among television’s strongest draws in adults 18-49.
Contributing to CBS’ gray hairs, though, were a group of unsuccessful new dramas (“Education of Max Bickford,” “Citizen Baines,” “First Monday”) that held virtually no appeal for viewers under 25.
NBC continues to inch upward despite the addition of “Fear Factor,” which joins on the net’s roster young-skewing laffers like “Friends” (37.8) and “Will & Grace” (38.1).
It’s gotten older thanks to the ever-growing “Law & Order” franchise — with last year’s new entry, “Criminal Intent,” checking in at a not-so-spry 50.5 years — as well as multiple editions of “Dateline” and a lower than usual number of sitcoms on its sked (eight).
Net would like to keep its median age under 45, but most of its new scripted series successes (like “The West Wing”) have skewed older, and its comedy success has been limited in recent years.
ABC turned back the clock by a year last season thanks mainly to fewer hours of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Quizzer contributed to older median ages for the shows that surrounded it on the sked, too, and the net is now looking to reassert its standing as the youngest of the Big Three with a crop of family-friendly shows this fall.
Fox, whose year-to-year jump in median age is partly due to its extensive coverage of baseball’s postseason, has also matured a bit courtesy of scripted series. “Boston Public” and “24,” two series that received heavy promotional push during baseball the past two seasons, both sport a median age above 40.
In the world of weblets, UPN remains a few years older than the WB, primarily because of its “Star Trek” franchise. New entry “Enterprise” (at 41.2 years) is easily the oldest-skewing returning show on either weblet.
The WB, meanwhile, got 2 years older as it added comedy anchor “Reba” (33.8) while the audience of several of its vet series, including “Angel,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “7th Heaven,” aged a bit.