Pay cablers reach out to the gray zone

Signs show pay TV recognizing senior citizens' cash as green as anybody else's

HBO’s programming-quilt philosophy means individual programs needn’t attract a particularly wide audience. As long as passionate subsets keep subscribing for components as disparate as boxing, movies, documentaries, and original series from “True Blood” to “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the channel’s model yields dividends.

Perhaps that’s why pay TV appears to represent one of those few bastions in the youth-obsessed media where the quilt reserves swatches — quietly, without much fanfare, over there in the corner — for grandma and grandpa.

It’s a little early to call gray the new black. But there are more signs pay TV is recognizing senior citizens’ cash is as green as anybody else’s. Besides, for those not reliant on beer advertisers, appealing to a demographic much of the media has left behind in the snow, metaphorically speaking, has its advantages.

HBO’s documentaries have long demonstrated this tendency, including recent profiles of Gloria Steinem and Harry Belafonte. This isn’t to say those projects don’t have relevance today, only that the themes speak more to those who were sentient during their early contributions to feminism and civil rights.

The channel has also found other ways to celebrate Hollywood’s emeritus class, such as the delightful one-on-one chat featuring Mel Brooks, Dick Cavett and a cameo by Carl Reiner — a trio that totals nearly a quarter-millennium of mirth.

Seemingly extracting a page from that playbook, Encore will devote some of its original-programming budget this week to “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis,” a documentary tribute to the octogenarian who, like Brooks and Reiner, demonstrates comedy is a powerful preserving agent.

Even HBO’s scripted fare has gotten into the act. The network just offered a preview of its horseracing drama “Luck,” where most of the marquee names — including Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, Nick Nolte and Michael Gambon, along with director Michael Mann and writer supreme David Milch — are over 65.

Then again, look at the Oscars, which after its youth-movement hosting experiment with Anne Hathaway and James Franco found itself in a public-relations jam and retreated to the comfort and safety of Billy Crystal, who’s older than the two of them combined.

Perhaps it’s no accident the movie “RED” is in pay TV rotation on TMC, proving it really is possible, financially speaking, to be old enough to retire and be extremely dangerous.

Granted, this assortment of examples hardly qualifies as a reversal of tides pulling in the opposite direction. If anything, as their demographic profiles migrate upward broadcasters are even more eager to corral younger viewers, which explains the giddiness surrounding CBS’ “2 Broke Girls” and Fox’s “New Girl,” which have performed disproportionately well among those under 35. Oddly, one seldom hears similar crowing about the strong 50-plus pull of “Harry’s Law” and “Blue Bloods.”

There’s no denying an element of condescension has crept into depictions of seniors, but perhaps eclipsing that is the novelty factor: So much has been done to expunge older characters from certain media quadrants, seeing them provides something of an unexpected kick, which partially explains the Betty White craze that suddenly had her cropping up everywhere.

Incorporating such projects on pay TV also reflects a shrewd realization about the transactional nature of media, where people increasingly pay directly for what’s consumed without an advertising middle man.

Under those terms, it’s possible to program to an older audience, whose money isn’t discounted in the way the value of their patronage is among media buyers. And since many seniors are actually faring better than their progeny in the current economy, they’re prime candidates to pay the toll to access programs targeting them.

The media preoccupation with youth is too deeply ingrained to result in a wholesale shift — even in the minds of older baby boomers, frankly, who have a hard time thinking of themselves as their parents’ age. As the animation great Chuck Jones, then 84, once told an interviewer, “I just feel like a young man who has something the matter with him.”

Nevertheless, if pay channels fine-tune their mix to capitalize on these demographic patterns — unearthing a silver lining, to quote the Grateful Dead, in a touch of gray — it won’t be just dumb luck.