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For television news, the kids aren’t all right

ALLEGATIONS OF RAPE AT DUKE UNIVERSITY provided the media a “perfect storm of race, class and sex,” wrote the Boston Phoenix, omitting another key ingredient in that unsavory broth: Youth.

In the eyes of TV news, the kids most definitely are not all right, as cable coverage in particular plays to fears that they are simultaneously imperiled and going to hell in a handbasket. Yet if the media preoccupation with youth hardly warrants a “Fox News Alert,” what’s striking is how these channels focus so intently on the young when their audience is more likely to mull prescription drug benefits than shoot tequila during spring break in Cabo.

The major nightly newscasts and newspapers continue to grapple with the need to “get younger,” from the “CBS Evening News’ ” planned makeover and the obscene drift of primetime magazines in television to shorter stories and increased page one “pop culture” coverage in top dailies. Beyond reaching the young adults advertisers covet, the concern is that the next generation needs to develop the news-consuming habit.

Seldom mentioned, however, is the fact that cable news is equally geriatric. Indeed, Fox News Channel and CNN are two of only three leading basic networks (the other being the Hallmark Channel) whose median viewer age is over 60. Headline News rings in next at 59.9, and MSNBC is still on the rickety side at 57.

This is the dirty little secret cable news would rather not discuss — namely, that half their viewers graduated from the 18-49 demographic during the first Bush administration. Nevertheless, their primetime hours are replete with the young, restless and at risk — whether it’s a missing girl in Aruba, spring break shenanigans or alleged rape at a prestigious university.

In that context, Fox and CNN’s content sounds more like retirement-home residents lamenting what’s wrong with kids today than catering to their audience. It also proffers a skewed vision of teens and young adults, whom the network newsmags also present as being either constantly threatened by Internet miscreants (see “Dateline’s” “To Catch a Predator” series) or determined to kill themselves (witness “20/20’s” “binge-drinking coeds” expose).

Pedophiles, in fact, have become the de facto star of the May rating sweeps, low-lighted by KCBS-TV in Los Angeles promoting a piece about child molesters living near Disneyland. It’s the most cynical kind of scare tactic (“Your children might be in danger!”) designed to reel in young women, mirroring Fox News host Greta Van Susteren’s obsession with the Natalee Holloway case.

Admittedly, such appeals are easier and cheaper to do than substantive reporting. Just don’t put lipstick on the pig, as Van Susteren did last year by calling missing persons “an epidemic.” It’s only an epidemic, frankly, if you glean all your news from her nightly police blotter and sister of woe Nancy Grace on CNN Headline News.

The cable nets’ older profiles have also yielded absurd exchanges about demographic superiority, such as the boast that more young adults view MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann than CNN’s Paula Zahn. Whichever midget is taller, the truth remains that the vast majority of young adults have no interest in either.

What should be troubling for everyone in news is that even with all their pandering to the under-30 crowd, precious little entices them to tune in.

So the news biz continues to pound its collective head against the demographic wall — a scenario that brings to mind the Billy Wilder classic “Sunset Blvd.,” where writer Joe Gillis tells aging star Norma Desmond, “There’s nothing tragic about being 50. Not unless you’re trying to be 25.”

Gillis, a good-looking young fellow, wound up floating face down in a swimming pool. Not the most dignified way to go, but Greta, Nancy and “20/20” would be all over it.

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