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Median age rises at Big Three

Led by CBS, networks march toward senior set

If Big 3 broadcasters were actual living, breathing TV viewers, they’d ignore themselves.

While the broadcast nets and advertisers still target the holy 18-49 grail, ABC, NBC and CBS are now all firmly out of the demo.

According to media analyst Steve Sternberg’s annual median age report, when DVR usage is counted, all three nets posted median ages at 50 or above during the 2009-2010 TV season. That’s the first time the Big 3 crossed the 50-year-old threshold together.

CBS continues to lead the march toward the senior set, with a median age of 56 — followed by ABC (52) and NBC (50).

Once-youthful Fox isn’t too far behind, however, sporting a median age of 46. Of all the networks, Fox has aged the most in the past decade, having started the 2000s at a still sprightly median of 35. The CW has remained pretty consistent, clocking in a median age of 34.

Median age is the point where half of a network’s audience is older, and half is younger. Sternberg admits that it’s not as useful as more specific numbers in defining a network’s audience, but it is a quick way to get a competitive snapshot of programmers.

Sternberg noted that there used to be a wide range of median ages at the broadcast nets. But “over the past five or six years, a substantially different picture of the broadcast landscape has been developing.”

With all three nets posting a median age of over 50, it might be a bit unfair to poke fun at CBS as the geriatric network, now that each of the Big Three are trending 50-plus. But don’t completely can those jokes just yet: Sternberg reports that last year, more than 60% of CBS’ average audience was over 50 for the first time ever, with more than a quarter over 65.

Fox’s median age of 46 makes it older than any of the networks were in 1991, when Sternberg first started his study. That year, CBS was the oldest broadcast net, with a median age of 45, followed by NBC (42), ABC (37) and Fox (29).

But by aging up, Fox started attracting a much broader audience, which ultimately helped the net rank No. 1 in adults 18-49 for the past six seasons (thank you, “American Idol”).

As the networks began to focus on demos in the early 1990s, the median age report has also provided insight into how the nets have nonetheless seen the rise in competition erode much of their younger audience.

The networks have been creeping toward this post-50 milestone for years, as have many top cablers. The broadcast networks have seen their median ages grow over the past 15 years as younger auds find other means to catch their favorite shows, or flee to cable (or other pastimes).

Sternberg pointed out that the decrease in primetime comedy, which are usually the youngest-skewing shows on TV, have also contributed to the rise in median age. On the flip side, older-skewing procedural dramas now dominate in prime — helping age up all four major broadcasters.

Reality series and gamers are also older-skewing. “Dancing With the Stars,” for example, has a median age close to 60.

And the broadcast networks long ago got out of programming to tykes. With kids 2-11 virtually non-existent in their audience makeup, it’s no surprise that the nets have aged.

Network-by-network, the oldest-skewing show at ABC is “Dancing with the Stars” (with a median age of 58); at CBS, it’s “60 Minutes” (61); NBC’s is “Dateline Sunday” (58); and Fox’s “Human Target” and “Bones” both attract a median age of 52. The CW’s oldest-skewing program is “Smallville,” at 39.

Among the youngest shows by network: ABC’s “Scrubs” (38); CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother” (45); NBC’s “The Office” (35); Fox’s Seth MacFarlane trio “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “The Cleveland Show” (30) and the CW’s “Gossip Girl” (28).

Among cable networks, rural cabler RFD is oldest (over 65), followed by Fox News (65, which is down from 65-plus last year); CNN (63, up from 60); Hallmark (61, down from 63) and GSN (60, down from 62).

The youngest, of course, are kid-targeted: Nick Jr. (6), as well as Nicktoons, Cartoon Network, Disney XD and Nickelodeon (11).

Then there’s the broad-based cable nets, which are looking a lot more like the broadcast nets when it comes to median age. USA is no different than its broadcast sibling NBC (median age 50); TNT attracted a median age of 47, while TBS is at 36. AMC is at its youngest in years (49), while FX is at 38.

Looking ahead at the coming season, Sternberg predicts that ABC, CBS and Fox will remain steady, while NBC has a chance to age down, now that “The Jay Leno Show” isn’t a part of the mix.

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