One seldom-discussed aspect of ad-supported entertainment is its generational divide, and the fact top power brokers and creative masterminds — usually in their 50s and 60s — are tasked with determining what young adults will want to watch. Yet despite this obvious tension, the issue rarely finds its way onto the screen.
Given that, it’s noteworthy to see two series premiering that deal with how different generations don’t communicate very well regarding matters of culture and commerce — a gap that risks becoming more of a chasm, one could argue, thanks to the self-selecting and like-minded communities that spring up via social media.
“The Comedians,” an FX comedy set in Hollywood, tackles the issue pretty directly, chronicling the arranged professional marriage of Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. Playing versions of themselves, the two are thrown together to co-star in a fictional variety show. Beyond the meta aspects, the fact they can’t seem to agree on anything has quite a lot to do with Crystal being stunned Gad doesn’t know who Ernie Kovacs is, and Gad suggesting working with Crystal will excite his grandparents.
“Younger,” meanwhile, strikes a more glancing blow but a no less enlightening one. Created by Darren Star, the TV Land series casts Sutton Foster as a 40-year-old woman who lies about her age to land an assistant’s job for which she’s over-qualified. Perpetuating the ruse makes the character privy to sniping from each side — hearing twentysomethings deride older colleagues and disdain their more sedentary lives, while her fortysomething boss treats her with condescension and resentment.
Admittedly, this division is hardly a new one. The entertainment industry has long been characterized by younger development executives sending projects up the food chain.
Still, there are several factors, from the cultural to the political, that have potentially exacerbated the generational rift, including younger voters’ role in what’s known as the Obama coalition — a group regularly mocked for its flakiness in not consistently turning out for elections. Small wonder the older, more conservative Fox News Channel audience is regularly treated to finger-wagging segments about spring break and pieces mocking millennials for being ill-informed regarding world events.
As for the cultural component, a central conflict pertains to comedy, where it’s not unusual for generations to harbor markedly different views about what’s funny, which might explain those older viewers who lament not having laughed at “Saturday Night Live” this century.
In hindsight, a key moment came in 2010, when “The Tonight Show” openly divided its audience into two camps, devoted to either Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien. While fans didn’t break down strictly by age, as cultural observer and author Neal Gabler noted, “O’Brien and Leno stood across a cultural and generational divide: young vs. old, cool vs. uncool.” The situation was created by the network’s eagerness to keep O’Brien, even if that meant forcing Leno out. “NBC, like an aging suitor, was addled by youth,” Gabler concluded.
Although one would think there are enough options for various demographics to peacefully coexist, because of the financial imperative to reach a younger audience that’s not always true. Media institutions older viewers embrace, from TV news to award shows, face constant pressure to enhance their youth appeal.
Framed that way, young adults aren’t just off watching shows aimed at them; they’re also part of the reason their parents can’t have nice things.
Such media stereotypes are blunt instruments, broadly lumping people into demographic baskets. But as long as youth commands a premium with ad buyers, this generation gap is going to persist.
That doesn’t mean disparate constituencies must sing “Kumbaya,” or even watch “Girls” and “Blue Bloods” together. But it is perhaps overdue, as these new series suggest, to begin recognizing the new wrinkles on an age-old problem.