For years, executives at ABC, Fox and NBC essentially stopped caring about television viewers once they had reached 50 years old.
You don't hear that much anymore.
The median age for viewers at those networks and CBS is now 51. The broadcasters' audience has aged at twice the rate of the general population during the past two decades, according to a new report. It's a quiet trend with a real impact on the way they do business.
"It should be a concern, but it doesn't seem to be a concern at the moment," said Steve Sternberg, who wrote the report for Baseline Inc., an information source for the film and TV industries that is owned by The New York Times Co. "You don't want to have CBS, ABC and NBC all having median ages in their mid-50s."
The risk in having a rapidly aging audience is the networks becoming less relevant to advertisers, the backbone of their business. Increasingly, that's a way of thinking that itself is getting old.
Sternberg first started studying median age data using Nielsen Co. statistics in 1991 when he was at the Bozell ad agency. At the time, ABC's median age — the point at which half its audience was younger and half older — was 37. NBC's was 42 and Fox's was 29. CBS, which has traditionally had the oldest audience, was 45.
For years, these networks (except for CBS) have sold advertising based on how many people were watching in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic. Both CBS (55) and ABC (51) had median ages above that range last season, according to the report. NBC's median age was 49 and Fox's was 44.
Much of the aging isn't unique to TV: The median age for the American population as a whole increased from 33 in 1990 to 38 last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"You hear people saying, `Your audiences are older now and you don't have the young people you used to have in the 1980s,'" said David Poltrack, chief research executive at CBS. "I say, `Yeah, the U.S. auto companies aren't controlling 80 percent of the market anymore, either.'"
Economics play a part in the aging audience. A generation ago, the networks were more quick to cast off shows in favor of something newer and hipper, but are more reluctant now to get rid of something that's showing success. Most new shows fail, so the financial risk is too great if it isn't really necessary.
With the show aging and star Charlie Sheen in legal trouble, "Two and a Half Men" might have been a ripe candidate for cancellation in another era. Instead, CBS made Sheen the highest paid comedy actor on TV and kept the sitcom on the air. The show's median age is 50.
"Dancing With the Stars," with a median audience age of 60, is the most popular series on ABC's schedule. Its youngest-skewing show, "Lost," just went off the air.
Shows such as "24" and "House" broadened Fox's audience beyond its youth-oriented roots. The median age of the "American Idol" audience has jumped from 36 to 44 over the past seven seasons, the report said. Young people who left when "Friends" went off the air are the most conspicuous of all the viewers who fled NBC.
A young audience has always been the holy grail for networks, but that's changing, said Alan Wurtzel, research chief at NBC. Not only are more older viewers available, advertisers are starting to recognize that they spend money and are receptive to their messages.
"If you try to young down your median age, you're going to be going against gravity," he said.
There's an effort with NBC's new fall schedule to appeal to a broader age group than was evident in the recent past, he said. The "Law & Order" Los Angeles spinoff and the legal series "Outlaw," with Jimmy Smits, both procedural dramas that wrap up a story each week, are two examples, he said.
There were five such procedurals on broadcast network schedules in 1999. Last season, there were 20, Sternberg said. Networks are also showing less comedy, a format that tends to skew young.
"The networks need to start thinking about how they can get a little younger," Sternberg said. "The only way to do that is through programming. There's no law that says they can't get any younger."
Advertisers looking for younger potential customers have more options, including the Internet and smaller cable networks. MTV (median age 23), Comedy Central (31), E! Entertainment (34), FX (38) and Bravo (42) are among the networks that have siphoned younger viewers away from broadcasters.
Among broadcasters, the small CW network specifically targets young women and has a median age of 33. Univision, the largest Spanish-language network and one with significant growth potential, has a median age of 36, the report said.
"The buying community has quietly and slowly shifted its focus away from 18-to-49 (years old) and toward 25-to-54 (years old) in terms of network television," said Jack Myers, editor and publisher of the industry news source jackmyers.com.
Despite the seemingly dismal demographic story, the broadcast networks' ability to consistently attract large, general audiences in an entertainment world where audiences are increasingly fragmented has kept them afloat. There are also advertising sectors geared to plus-50s that either didn't exist or had a much smaller profile two decades ago: prescription drugs, financial services and travel, for example.
"Don't discount people who are in their 50s and 60s. They buy iPads," Wurtzel said. "They're online. The reality is these are the people who have the money."
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