Will older viewers be ignored this fall?


Jeff Sagansky, CBS' Entertainment president, is rather delighted when he thinks about what the competition is up to these days -- they're going after young viewers.

"When you look at the other three networks, it must be a parade of, you know, 22-year-olds in Guess? jeans," he said. "We've decided to go in a different direction. And we've decided that what we're looking for is to be a broadcaster."

CBS is the only one to say it will not chase youth in the upcoming television season, which starts in earnest in September.

Last year, NBC canceled "In the Heat of the Night," "Matlock" and "The Golden Girls," shows that appealed to older viewers but not to sponsors in an advertiser-driven business.

Since the 1950s, when it had fewer affiliates to compete against the established network titans NBC and CBS, ABC has made a big effort to go after younger viewers.

And Fox Broadcasting Co., after being on the air only since 1986, is the No. 1 network among kids, teens and adults 18 to 34.

With everyone worshiping the cult of youth, it seems fair to ask if viewers older than 50 will be served this fall.

"I think they'll be just fine," said Betsy Frank, senior vice president of television information and new media for Saatchi and Saatchi advertising.

"Three of the four networks stated categorically they're targeting viewers under 50, but I think there's still a lot of programs on the air that specifically appeal to older viewers," Ms. Frank said. "And they're not forbidden from watching [shows] that appeal to younger viewers."

Paul Bricault, a media analyst for research firm Paul Kagan Associates, said advertisers try to reach audiences 18 to 49 years old because they're not set in their buying patterns. That means they might purchase products advertised in commercials.

But Mr. Sagansky doesn't agree.

"Whoever decided that, at the age of 50, suddenly you stop buying deodorant and toothpaste and you sit in the corner gumming pabulum and . . . holding your Rogaine -- I don't know who it was that actually decided this, but everybody has seemed to embrace this," he said.

Betty White, star of CBS' "The Golden Palace," the reconfiguration of "The Golden Girls" that NBC dropped at the end of last season, asked: "Who do you think gives those kids the money to spend?"

ABC Entertainment president Robert Iger said there is no doubt his network is courting the 18-to-49-year-old audience, which makes up half of the country's TV viewers. But ABC isn't shutting out the older viewer, either, he maintains.

"I don't think we're trying to alienate that segment of the audience at all. We'd welcome their viewership," Mr. Iger said. "But, again, our target is to craft shows that are appealing to the 18-to-49 demographic."

Mr. Iger points to staples on his schedule -- "Coach," "The Commish," "Room for Two," "Roseanne" -- that already count viewers older than 50 among their audience. Then there's newcomers "Delta" and "Crossroads" that he expects to appeal to a broad audience as well.

When Mr. Iger programmed the post-World War II drama "Homefront" last year, he was a bit apprehensive that it would only attract an older segment of the population.

"And we couldn't get older people to watch the show," he said.

It's just as hard as ever to predict what shows will be a hit with what audience, a lesson that came to CBS last season when it tried to court younger viewers on Friday nights with the animated "Fish Police" and "Scorch," a sitcom featuring a dragon. Both are in what Mr. Sagansky calls the "pet cemetery."

"We learned a lot about ourselves," he said. "We tried to appeal to kids and teens. And it's just not us. We decided . . . we're not going to be young. We're going to try and be good."

Mr. Sagansky said his competitors have bought into trying to be "hot" and "cutting edge, whatever that means," but he also said the age of those who buy commercial time has an impact as well.

"Most of the media buyers at the agencies are kids," he said.

"Everyone likes to buy what they watch," said David Poltrack, CBS' senior vice president of planning and research. "As long as the system allows them to do that, they're going to do it. It's natural."

But Alan Wurtzel, ABC's chief researcher, said the networks are merely being responsive advertiser needs. "Frankly, if advertisers came in and said to us, 'We changed our minds. We want 25 to 54 from now on,' I'm sure that we'd respond, as you would to any customer," he said.

"Some say that we're ignoring the fact that older viewers have more disposable income -- it's the empty-nest syndrome -- they don't have kids around, they have money to spend," he said.

But these arguments miss the essential point of what's going on, Mr. Wurtzel insisted. "When it comes to network-television advertising, a mere 10 product categories account for fully half of all network-television spending," he said.

Those product categories include cereals; beer; cold, cough and sinus remedies; trucks and other vehicles; long-distance services; movies; headache remedies; passenger cars; and restaurants and drive-ins.

And even taking into account the diversity among the 18-to-49 demographic, which ranges from high-school graduates to those planning for their retirement, Mr. Wurtzel said, "They still wind up behaving in a similar fashion. That is, buying a lot of this stuff."

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