TV to over-49s: You haven't dropped dead yet?

Hey, Gramps! Want more TV shows aimed at you? Then stop watching them.

Published May 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

You can learn everything you need to know about media by reading the
ads in advertising magazines -- the meta-ads, that is, the ones that
advertise media outlets to advertisers. The ads read eerily like mid-1700s New
Orleans auction posters: "CourtTV captures women 18-49 ... CourtTV
has them locked up." E! network? "We've got those upscale 18-49
year-olds." Entertainment Weekly? "Over 8 million trend-setting,
free-spending, cool-worshipping pop-culture vultures. Ours, all
ours." And the barking in this flesh trade gets louder the younger
the bodies are; a quasi-pederastic trade ad for Seventeen shows an
onyx-haired, smokily staring nymphet lying in a field: "She's the one
you want. She's the one we've got."

Light of my
life, fire of my loins! As the TV networks rolled out their fall
schedules this past week, the obsession of the aging rouis of
advertising and broadcasting resulted again in lineups, with the
exception of CBS's, that are heavy on teens and young adults (and almost
exclusively white): a vast menu of high schools, prep schools and
post-school dating in Manhattan. The NBC Effect of the mid-'90s --
the creation of a republic of affluent 18- to 34-year-olds by targeted,
elite-oriented Must-See shows from "Frasier" on down to "Union
Square" -- has shaded into the WB Effect, in which the youngest
sector of that state is splintered off. ("Our focus," said WB's
president in announcing its lineup, "is 12- to 34-year-olds and that's
it.") Network TV, having once decided that the perfect television
show is a half-hour sitcom about well-paid
media professionals,
has now decided the perfect show is an
hour-long serial about a well-paid media professional's self-absorbed,
crybaby kid.

Young lust
has made good copy pretty much since humans stopped dropping dead at
age 20, and in the era of school shootings there will no doubt be
much agonizing over whatever
the hell
the new youth TV says about our Inner Sophomores. But
when it comes to TV, it's important to remember that networks are
programmed not by cultural studies scholars but by businesspeople who
make decisions out of financial interest (at least when the opportunity to get laid doesn't intervene).

So why aren't there more shows directed at seniors? In a society
where ageism has been a truly pressing concern ever since the
baby boom neared its Social Security payday, the popular
interpretation of this phenomenon is that normally bloodless
capitalists lose their senses when confronted by age, forgetting out
of sheer prejudice that older people have money to avoid taking with
them. It's the cult of youth! It's America's perpetual childhood!
It's our unhealthy attitude toward natural change! Even the New York
Observer's hilarious take on NBC's "upfront," or fall-lineup
presentation, broke into uncharacteristic, earnest outrage over the
Peacock's smarmy derision toward CBS's seeking over-49 viewers: "as
if that were a sin, as if they did not buy products."

It's an understandable response -- who has more money to blow than
older folks? But there's a reason networks are blowing off oldsters.
We viewers don't understand precisely how our attentions are valuable
to a network. We like to believe that every time we flip on ABC, a
dollar drops into Michael Eisner's vault, where later he rolls around
naked in the big fluffy green pile. But the fact is TV stations don't
make money simply because we watch them. They make money because
advertisers pay them in the belief that we will watch them.

That takes care of misconception one; misconception two is that advertisers want as many
people as possible to watch their spots. Advertisers, as a rule, aren't motivated by vanity. (Advertising agencies, now that's another
story.) Companies don't put out ads in the hope that as many people as possible will enjoy their product. They put out ads in the hope
that as many people as possible who would not otherwise have bought
their products will buy them.

Note that who would not otherwise have. The catch here is that
advertisers will work harder -- and hence will pay more -- to reach
affluent younger viewers, whose TV watching hasn't increased as much
as older people's demonstrably has. In other words, it's not that
businesses don't want money tainted with the stench of the grave.
It's that they don't believe they have to chase after it. While some ad
professionals have attacked this reasoning as outdated, the
prevailing feeling among advertisers is that they can capture 50-and-ups through news, cheaper entertainment programs and the like.

It's a familiar situation to older parents: You do and do and do for
the networks, but do they appreciate it? As American Demographics
pointed out, last TV season saw a decline in 18- to 34-year-old
viewership on every network but WB (which, if it wants me to put that
cockamamie "The" before its name, can send its lawyers after me).
The magazine extrapolated from this that the '99-00 season "may be
the first in a long time in which the networks return to one of the
basic tenets of their business: broadcasting," as opposed to
narrowcasting toward a young slice. Makes sense, right? If those
punks are too busy watching Eric Cartman, starting up e-businesses or
attending gun shows to catch the fine fare we slaved over a hot
banquette at Spago to cook up for them, then screw 'em! Except that,
as the fall lineups showed, the kids' absence has only made them
harder to get, and thus more valuable.

A bit of advice, then, for older Americans (though considering that
Salon, ahem, boasts that 90 percent of its readers are between 18 and 49, I realize I'm addressing a
mostly empty chamber here). If you want your interests better
represented outside CBS, you need to start watching network TV more
like 12- to 34-year-olds: decreasingly and elusively. Oh, I know, you
personally don't watch that much television -- hey, I never
look at the damn thing! -- but because, um, so many of your peers are
skewing the figures, consider joining a bowling league or taking up
pottery making. In your restricted, valuable hours, watch fewer
shows. Those you do watch, watch slavishly. (You'll have to be cruel
in winnowing: If those young go-getters on "JAG" bore you for a
second, fire their asses!) And for God's sake, stop watching the
news; you'll concentrate your attention's value, and we'll all be
glad to be rid of the laxative commercials.

It wouldn't hurt to be fickle with your money, as well: The other
part of TV's youth bias is advertisers' belief that codgers are set
in their ways. (This view seems especially old-fashioned in today's
market, as Christine Larson argued in the May 10 Adweek -- if
anyone's going to be drinking Surge in 30 years, send me straight to Carousel now.)
So switch from Colgate to Pepsodent, Delta to Northwest, Chrysler to
Toyota and back! Roll those big fat IRAs of yours over a few times,
and see who comes crawling!

In other words, you can cry about anti-wrinkle bias, or you can wage
guerrilla war. Eat the same breakfast flakes two mornings in a row,
and you'll get all the Kevin Williamson dramedies you deserve; but
wise up and make advertisers paranoid, and Jane Seymour will never want for
employment again. And a generation to follow -- namely, mine -- will thank you for your
pioneering. We bask in attention today; but already NBC in
its advertising-mag ads is darkly hinting that "Gen Y [12- to 17-year-olds] is 60 million plus and growing, larger and more receptive
than Gen X." I only wish I could join your struggle. I hear, though,
that UPN's rolling out an hour-long dramedy about a white, 30ish
media critic hangin' in Brooklyn with his posse of quirky, free-spending friends, and, you know, something just tells me I Must See it.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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