Increasingly, television programmers are ignoring viewers over 50


With the dawn of a new fall network prime-time television season nearly upon us, it's interesting to note that the research and focus-group data have returned a single inescapable conclusion: You can't trust anyone over 50.

The strategy: Ignore them.

The reward: untold advertiser riches through exclusively targeting the demographic group ages 18-49.

The price: middle-aged and elderly viewers, who evidently don't buy consumer products anyway.

When historians reflect on the 1992-93 television season, what they are likely to note is that network programmers completely bought into the notion that anything worth hawking on TV is probably beyond the means or awareness of any adult older than 50.

Consequently, the new prime-time schedules are overstocked with shows that will be embraced by yuppies and boomers and their adult offspring. Call it the greening of the television dial.

Age is now officially a dirty word. Youth not only will be served, it will be given the run of the store.

It's a programming strategy that inspired NBC to dump three shows said to appeal to the Geritol set -- "The Golden Girls," "Matlock" and "In the Heat of the Night" -- to go with three unproven shows aimed at the whippersnappers.

Only CBS continues to embrace -- in its actions and words -- the entertainment tastes of the older American. And that's just fine with CBS, whose prime-time programming whiz Peter Tortorici says, "If the other guys want to leave us as the only broad-based network on commercial TV, that's just fine with us."

If you want a culprit, blame Fox. It started this concept of old being mold, and things have been moving slowly in the direction of servicing the so-called "younger demographic" to the exclusion of the old in the past few years.

Interestingly, however, no one seems to want to take credit (or blame) for this development. The networks pass the buck to the sponsors, the sponsors to the ad agencies, the agencies to their research firms.

About the only certainty is that the trend has sprouted from a depressed network economic environment. Older folks evidently have less disposable income to purchase the kinds of products hawked over prime-time TV, so they're out. Period.

"The 18-to-49 demographic seems to be the audience that our sponsors are most interested in reaching," insisted ABC Entertainment President Bob Iger. "But in the crafting of a number of our shows, we haven't ignored the older segment of our audience. And we're certainly not trying to alienate them. We'd welcome their viewership. But they're not our target."

Added NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield:

"Just because we target young adults doesn't mean we don't want an older segment as well. They just don't happen to fall under what is our primary marketing strategy. We were skewing too old before, and that had to change."

In other words, we're not inviting you to the party, but if you want to drop by we won't kick you out. This time.

Does this kind of strategy make sound economic sense? In the case of Fox, perhaps. It has, after all, consistently worked to appeal to teens and young adults 18-34. It's an identity the network has nurtured, and it serves Fox well to be a niche-programming service.

"Fox has never claimed to be a mainstream programming service," said Betsy Frank, a vice president with the New York advertising agency of Saatchi & Saatchi. "So I think you've got to separate them from the others."

Ms. Frank added that it isn't accurate to term the new youth revolution a "granny dumping" direction, just as it's erroneous to presume that the networks are blindly following the marketing demands of their program sponsors.

BTC "Advertisers are a convenient scapegoat," Ms. Frank said. "While it's true that most advertising buys are based on adults ages 18 to 49, that does not necessarily mean we don't know that older people buy product -- because we do and our clients do."

For the sake of efficiency, however, Ms. Frank noted, it pays to target young adults "because you're going to get older ones in the mix, anyway."

At least one network doesn't buy into the idea that once you turn 50 the purchases stop and the TV set remains off. That's CBS, whose Entertainment division president, Jeff Sagansky, is disgusted by the youth-paved road traveled by his competitors.

"What we're looking for is to be a broadcaster," Mr. Sagansky said.

"The other guys have a different vision of the broadcast world. I'd like to know who decided that at the age of 50 you suddenly decide to stop buying deodorant and toothpaste and just sit in the corner gumming pabulum and holding your Rogaine. I don't know who decided it, but everyone seems to have embraced it."

Mr. Sagansky's CBS programming partner Tortorici likens putting older viewers out to pasture to "playing the main room at Caesars Palace and saying, 'I just want to sing to these people over here in the corner.'"

Mr. Tortorici prefers to think about "the prototypical family that can sit in front of the television set -- Grandma and Mom and Dad and the kids, all together.

"I'd like to be able to put something on the air that the whole family can watch. We're not out to see if you can get the 14-year-old to get out of there, run up to his room, lock the door and watch what will appeal only to him."

Ms. Frank doesn't believe the practice of excluding older viewers can work over the long haul, particularly in an environment so rife with competition from cable for every viewer segment.

"When you have three of the four major networks saying they want to attract the exact same viewer, you're ultimately asking for trouble," Ms. Frank predicted.

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