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Tuning In: Media Faces Demographic Divide

Shifting preferences, new formats accelerate the generation gap among readers, viewers

If you’re reading this in print, you’re holding a new Variety, something that represents a variation on more than a century of tradition.

Of course, the odds are also pretty good you’re reading this on a computer, tablet or phone, which helps explain why so many pubs have grappled with similar remodeling and reinvention — and offers a demonstration of the inherent, sometimes-delicate conflict between preserving the past and adapting to meet the digital present and future.

It’s easy to forget the entertainment industry really hasn’t been around all that long in its present form. Feature-length movies are less than 100 years old, and talkies even younger. When the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honored Philo T. Farnsworth, the guy who invented the first electronic television, at its recent Hall of Fame induction ceremony, his son was actually on hand to accept on dad’s behalf.

(From the pages of the March 26 issue of Variety.)

Nevertheless, despite its relative youth, there’s also a tremendous amount of tradition surrounding the media business. And the bond that people feel to what’s gone before is fostering tension regarding how much can be maintained at the expense of evolution — holding on to models and ideals whose value becomes more uncertain when faced with a volatile and unpredictable future.

In a way, print journalism and the wrenching changes the business has undergone as newspaper pages evaporate into digital bits represent an extreme demonstration of the challenge posed to the visual media as they grapple with this calculus.

The push and pull is creating a kind schizophrenia, and risks inducing whiplash. Yes, the Oscars still do a somber necrology segment recognizing those who passed away during the previous year, but honorary awards have been banished to a separate event, ostensibly to streamline a telecast that carved out time for host Seth MacFarlane — chosen thanks to his popularity in younger demographic precincts — to sing about boobs.

Talk to the industry’s old guard, and a common lament is that the millennial generation doesn’t appreciate or respect the past. Producers of a certain age grumble about being met with blank stares from young programming execs when they reference projects predating the Clinton administration.

Yet from the perspective of those who graduated college this century, why bother boning up on history — especially in a media world that’s changed so dramatically in just the past 10 or 15 years. In that context, invoking All in the Family or The Honeymooners has about as much relevance as vaudeville.

The political world is well aware of this generational rift. Media, however, often fritters at the edges of this debate: Something like Girls, for example, lights up the Twitterverse with outrage from those eligible to join AARP, while eliciting a collective shrug from series creator Lena Dunham’s contemporaries. Even an upcoming TV Land reality series that seeks to tackle the generation gap — Forever Young, about twentysomethings thrown together with senior citizens — mostly obscures such concerns amid a jokey tone.

Standard-bearers of the media’s grizzled elite have sought to reassure us — or perhaps console themselves — by contending that despite a shift in packaging, the underlying fundamentals still apply.

CBS News’ Bob Schieffer said as much during his Hall of Fame induction, while the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd — writing about Time Warner spinning off its magazine unit — suggested, “It will be good if this moment provokes a reckoning about what really needs to be preserved in the culture, about what is valuable.” Digital platforms, she added, are “shiny sacks with bells and whistles, but without content, they’re empty sacks.”

By contrast, the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes’ decision noted that despite Time magazine’s storied history, “Sentimentality wasn’t enough for Bewkes to keep Time Inc.”

In professional terms that means preserving the past is an admirable goal, provided that reverence to the necrology segment doesn’t extend to causing you to wind up in it.

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