How ad industry’s youth obsession is wrecking the TV business

“Why does the TV business hate people over 50?” That’s one of the most common questions I get asked by viewers.

This is not an idle query. The TV industry, like much of corporate America, chases youth. That pursuit has a major impact on programming. It helps explain why a low-rated show such as NBC’s “Community” can keep going (and going, and going ...) while older-skewing shows are usually toast. Even if they have more total viewers.

So now you know why “Harry’s Law,” the legal drama with sexagenarian Kathy Bates, is no longer on the air. NBC executives said as much when they canceled the show.


Most TV networks are chasing viewers in the “demo,” or the demographic ages 18 to 49 as measured by Nielsen. But how and why did that happen? And is that even rational?

The first question is easier to answer. During the early years of commercial TV, Nielsen estimated total audiences. It sounds ridiculous in our tech-savvy world, but back then Nielsen’s measurements depended largely on written diaries that members of each household in the survey were obligated to fill out. That’s how we know, for example, that 73-million people watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s show in February 1964.

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It’s also why network TV aimed for mass audiences and maintained conventions such as a “family hour,” when parents and kids could sit down together to watch shows. This led critics to charge that executives were programming a “lowest common denominator” medium — a “vast wasteland,” in the timeless phrase of former FCC chief Newton Minow — that weeded out minority views and tastes. But it was how TV worked for 40 years.

But when Nielsen introduced “people meters” in 1987, that all changed. These meters allowed for more precise measurement of viewing — and also for speedy and detailed breakdowns by age and gender. Marketers loved this data. The ad industry believed young adults were the most valuable market segment by far. Even though older adults usually had greater net worths, young people went out more and spent more money on movies and beer. Also, people under 40 were believed to be more susceptible to ad pitches and hence more likely to change brands or to try something totally new.

The effect on TV programming was dramatic. In 1986, right before people meters were introduced, the No. 1 series on TV was “The Cosby Show” — the very definition of a family-friendly, mass-appeal sitcom. Ten years later, though, families had been virtually banished from TV. The top comedies were all about single young adults seeking sex and romance: “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Suddenly Susan.”

A discerning viewer could find fault with this trend. And many did. TV lost a lot of variety — literally. Variety shows, which had already been declining since the late 1970s, utterly disappeared. Kitchen-sink comedies? No way. The office or the coffee shop was where it was at. The former family hour was now filled with comedies that hinged on penis jokes. (Yes, there were exceptions such as “Everybody Loves Raymond” — but even that show deemphasized the kids in the house and presented more adult themes than previous family sitcoms.)

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Whatever viewers thought of it, this approach worked quite well for the TV industry — for a time. Networks gave the advertisers what they wanted, which was lots of young viewers. Executives were even able to keep commercial prices high despite the fact that their total viewing was declining as cable and digital competition grew. The reason? Well, somewhat paradoxically, it was this: broadcast TV’s reach was declining, but it was still bigger than anything else out there.

But there are signs now that the sun is finally setting on the demo craze, 25 years after it took over network TV. Broadcasters may have to go back to valuing total audiences over how many affluent 20-somethings they managed to reach.

Why? Simple math. The total audience for the networks has risen slightly this year compared to last, but that growth is coming from — gasp! — older adults. Young people have already checked out, cut the cord, retreated to Netflix, logged on to Instagram. That’s left their parents and grandparents watching the flat screen in the living room. As a result, the median age of viewers on ABC, CBS and NBC is now well over 50. Which, in case you haven’t noticed, means that these networks are now making programming decisions based on the presumed preferences of a minority of their audience.

A rapidly shrinking minority.

Do you see where this is going?

In years past, when asked about their preference for the demo, network executives would often cite financial incentives. Young adults were what marketers wanted, so that’s who got the programs that catered to them. To paraphrase Willie Sutton, TV was just going where the money was.

But now TV executives may need to start thinking about another saying, this one common among economists: Things that can’t go on, don’t.


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