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TV starts to notice others in the room

The television business may be rediscovering that there are Americans who matter who aren’t ages 18 to 49.

For the last 20 years, the television industry has been all about young-adult demographic groups, or “demos” in the slang of Madison Avenue, because marketers have believed that young people are most likely to develop lifelong loyalties to certain brands. Thus, whichever network attracts the most adults under 50 has been considered the winner, commanding premium rates for commercial time.

As a result, network executives have driven themselves to distraction chasing young people, struggling to find programs with appeal for viewers in their 20s and 30s. During the 1990s, for instance, executives spent enormous sums trying to find youth-oriented shows in the vein of NBC’s smash sitcom “Friends.” Meanwhile, people of other ages slowly drifted away to their own niche shows on cable TV or other media.

Yet there are growing signs that network TV is moving away from its relentless focus on demos -- and that could have a huge influence on future programming. There’s a growing sense in the industry that the 18-to-49 category’s importance to marketers may be wildly overblown. Moreover, in an age of DVRs, multichannel systems and increasingly tiny ratings, the demo obsession may itself be pushing down ratings, exacerbating the industry’s problems and excluding from consideration too many programs that could have broad appeal.

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This season, in fact, CBS has zoomed to first place in both mass audience and the more carved-up, youth-skewing demographics by sticking to a “big tent” strategy of such crowd-pleasing, familiar shows as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “NCIS,” plus a new crime drama with broad appeal, “The Mentalist.”

“Our philosophy has always been [that] limiting the world to 18-to-49 was rather short-sighted,” CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves said in a recent interview. “I think it’s rather ironic that as of today we’re in first place in every single demographic, including 18-to-49. We have always believed that a wider tent was a much smarter way to go.”

The evidence extends beyond one network. The No. 1 TV series for the last four years has been Fox’s “American Idol,” a family-friendly talent contest that returns to the airwaves this week. And although most of network TV has continued to decline this decade, the audience for the Super Bowl, which has aired on various networks and is perhaps the ultimate group media event, has soared to record levels.

Meanwhile, a new research company called TRA Inc. has the potential to revolutionize audience measurement with a system that attempts to analyze how viewers -- including those 50 and over -- spend their money, rather than just tally what they watch. That could enable marketers to target audiences with much more precision than in the past, network executives and media buyers say, and reveal previously unrecognized purchasing habits across all age groups.

As Steve Sternberg, executive vice president of audience analysis at the New York-based media firm Magna, puts it, “While demos are still important, the industry needs to move beyond them.” Sternberg believes the networks often forget that, even in an era of multiple television sets in each home, most prime-time TV shows are still watched by families. “TV has always been and will continue to be a group medium: About 80% of homes have only one set on during prime time.”

None of this means, of course, that the 18-to-49 yardstick is about to become as obsolete as rabbit-ear antennas. Young people remain the most important early adopters of new products and cultural trends. Their purchase decisions are vital to marketers in such big categories as consumer technology, movies and cars.

This is true even though some network executives and media buyers think the notion that young people’s brand loyalty must be won early is, in Moonves’ words, “an old wives’ tale.”

The idea was that “if you bought Crest toothpaste when you were 18 years old, when you turned 50 you would still use Crest toothpaste,” Moonves said.

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Indeed, Sternberg and others said they knew of no reliable studies backing that theory.

Also, Moonves adds, “a 50-year-old today is different than a 50-year-old 25 years ago. The life expectancy is longer; the boomers are doing more in their 50s, they’re experiencing more. It’s a very different generation.”

The networks have not always focused so intently on demos. Since the dawn of commercial TV in the late 1940s, Nielsen Media Research (and its predecessor entities) has measured total viewers, which remain a key snapshot of program popularity.

But starting in the 1970s, programmers began growing enamored of young adults. ABC launched the trend, developing such young-skewing shows as “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” to counter the longtime dominance of CBS among households. In a 1977 interview, ABC’s then-Chairman Leonard Goldenson said the network “had to go after the younger audiences because they’re the ones who are the most curious, who would seek out the new, who would flip the dials.”

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Then, in 1987, Nielsen introduced “people meters,” which replaced the old system of viewing diaries and was thought to give marketers more detailed and reliable demographic information. As it happened, people meters also suggested a decline in total viewing for the broadcasters, which made the idea of isolating just one section of the audience -- namely, those supposedly impressionable young adults -- more appealing.

The effect on prime time was enormous. Soon after people meters were introduced, programmers moved away from such broad, family-oriented fare as “The Cosby Show” and started developing sexy shows about young urbanites, such as “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” Family hits such as “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Malcolm in the Middle” became exceptions that proved the rule.

Some don’t see the trend stopping any time soon.

“For the foreseeable future, the 18-to-49 demo . . . is going to be the currency that networks and advertisers are going to be working with,” said Peter Liguori, chairman of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Co.

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Liguori acknowledges, however, that the science of audience measurement is changing rapidly, especially because of DVRs, which have made the process of assessing a show’s performance much longer and more complicated. Days or weeks now pass before executives even know how many viewers played a program back after its initial airing.

Hoping to cut through this cloud of data are such companies as New York-based start-up TRA, led by media industry veteran and former investment banker Mark Lieberman. Using a database of 1.5 million households developed in partnership with companies such as TiVo, TRA tracks consumer behavior by matching TV viewing habits with actual purchases so marketers can focus just on those programs that have a preponderance of, say, beer drinkers or frequent travelers. CBS and Discovery have signed on as early clients, the company says.

Lieberman argues that until now marketers were merely using age data to make commercial decisions because they lacked anything better. What advertisers are “really interested in is the purchase behavior of the viewer that’s watching a particular program or network,” he said.

Nielsen is likewise looking at a system that would match buying habits with viewing patterns and is working with cable firms to tap information from digital set-top boxes, according to spokeswoman Anne Elliot.

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Of course, in the end what the TV business needs most are hit shows, which have proved increasingly elusive the last few seasons. Focusing on broad audiences, as CBS has done, could be key. Though not nearly as popular with critics as niche series like “Lost” or “30 Rock,” series such as “NCIS” and “The Mentalist” have developed huge followings of 20 million viewers a week.

As Moonves said, “The biggest hits will transcend any specific demographic group.”

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scott.collins@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The shows that viewers like best

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Here are the most popular shows in both the 18-to-49 demographic and among total viewers, from the start of the television season in September to the present.

Top 10 shows among viewers 18-49

1. “Desperate Housewives” (ABC)

2. “NBC Sunday Night Football” (NBC)

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3. “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC)

4. “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (CBS)

5. “House” (Fox)

6. “The Office” (NBC)

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7. “Two and a Half Men” (CBS)

8. “Heroes” (NBC)

9. “Dancing With the Stars” (Monday) (ABC)

10. “Survivor: Gabon” (CBS)

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Top 10 shows in total viewers

1. “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (CBS)

2. “Dancing With the Stars” (Monday) (ABC)

3. “NCIS” (CBS)

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4. “Dancing With the Stars” (Tuesday results) (ABC)

5. “The Mentalist” (CBS)

6. “Desperate Housewives” (ABC)

7. “NBC Sunday Night Football” (NBC)

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8. “Criminal Minds” (CBS)

9. “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC)

10. “60 Minutes” (CBS)

Source: Nielsen Media Research

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