In CBS's new cop show "Blue Bloods," Tom Selleck, at the age of 66, plays a New York police commissioner. Kathy Bates, at 62, snagged the lead role in NBC's legal series "Harry's Law." And 62-year-old rocker Steven Tyler is fast becoming the crowd's favorite judge on his first season on Fox's "American Idol."
Television is starting to act its age.
For decades the TV industry has operated on a currency of youth, creating shows that appeal to 18- to 49-year-olds, the age group advertisers traditionally consider most likely to buy new products, switch brands and spend on everything from cars to soft drinks. But as the nearly 80 million baby boomers continue to age out of the coveted demographic—the oldest boomers are turning 65 this year, the youngest 47—networks want to charge advertisers more to reach them. After all, these viewers still watch a disproportionate amount of TV, and they control half of all U.S. consumer spending.
From Ed O'Neill's patriarch on ABC's "Modern Family" to 51-year-old Hugh Laurie on Fox's "House," boomers' influence can be seen in programming. On "NCIS," TV's No. 1 drama with an average viewer age of 57, strapping young naval investigators turn to wise 59-year-old Mark Harmon for advice.
Network executives' pitch to advertisers is that the current crop of aging viewers isn't like previous generations, who were winding down their spending at 55. This group buys iPads, redecorates, splurges on vacations and postpones retirement. "People still think of their grandparents when they were 60 wearing comfort shoes and baggy chinos," says Alan Wurtzel, NBC Universal's president of research. "These guys are just fundamentally different."
Networks had to do something. Despite the vast teenage contingent that tunes in to "American Idol" each week, the average prime-time TV viewer hit 51 this year.
Boomers watch some 170 hours of TV a month, or five to six hours a day, according to Nielsen Co.—compared with an average of four hours and 49 minutes a day overall. Almost half of boomers use digital recording devices and stream shows online.
"They are the TV generation. It's where they grew up, and it's still their cultural touch point," says Sheron Davis, behavioral sciences director at Omnicom Group's BBDO New York ad agency.
Viewers 55-plus make up nearly 60% of the weekly audience for CBS's legal drama "The Good Wife" and ABC's "Dancing with the Stars." Even for high-school singalong "Glee," the turn-on, tune-in, drop-out generation accounts for a per-episode average of 2.5 million viewers, or 21% of the total, Nielsen says.
Boomers can thank themselves for the industry's ageism, says Matt Thornhill, president of market-research firm the Boomer Project. As the post-War generation came into adulthood, they made shows like ABC's "Charlie's Angels" and "Happy Days" hugely popular—and hugely valuable to advertisers. Ever since, networks charged advertisers a premium to reach 18- to 49-year-old viewers and discounted older audiences. In fact, for the most part, viewers over 55 haven't factored into ad rates, which made them without value to the networks.
Currently, networks still charge advertisers more for shows with younger viewers. A 30-second ad on "The Good Wife" cost, on average, $108,000 in the fourth quarter of 2010, or roughly $25 per thousand viewers, according to SQAD Inc., a Tarrytown, N.Y., media-research firm. In contrast, on a Wednesday night on top-rated "American Idol," where the average age is 44, Fox can charge $435,000 for 30 seconds—or about $46.75 per thousand viewers. "Glee," one of prime-time TV's youngest shows but whose audience is nowhere near that of "American Idol," gets $47 per thousand viewers.
Producers and network executives still cringe when a series is deemed "old," and they still brag about nightly 18-to-49 ratings. But they also are trying to reflect aging boomers' tastes and values.
Networks are retooling boomer classics to tap boomers' '60s nostalgia. CBS, which has the largest (and with an average age of 56, the oldest) prime-time audience, launched a new "Hawaii Five-0" last year. The sleek look and sexy actors brought in young viewers, while the "reboot" of a classic pleased older viewers. ABC has a "Charlie's Angels" remake in development. NBC is developing a pilot about Playboy bunnies, while ABC is working on one about Pan Am flight attendants—both set in the '60s.
The networks want marketers to ignore age and pay for viewers based on income and other factors—in effect paying more for affluent viewers who are 55-plus. CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler says the network has always created shows that appeal to all ages. But "boomers have always been a priority customer for us," she adds.
"Rather than saying a 22-year-old is more valuable than a 58-year-old, we're saying, 'Look, the fact is an affluent 58-year-old is certainly more valuable than a 22-year-old who is just getting by,' " says David Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS Corp., parent of the CBS network.
Still, most marketers prefer to reach young consumers, whose buying preferences can make a product or service cool so that it eventually catches on with older buyers. "Young people are still prime targets for mortgages, car loans and investment advice," says Joe Abruzzo, head of research at Havas SA's MPG unit, with clients such as Dannon, Carnival Cruise Lines and Sears Holdings Corp. Networks are selling advertisers on older consumers "because that's what they can offer."
Pharmaceuticals, luxury-car makers and financial firms are on board. "This isn't a wave, it's a tsunami," says Jim Speros, chief marketing officer at Fidelity Personal and Workplace Investing, a unit of Fidelity Investments. "[Boomers] have to feel like they're seeing themselves in the [TV] spot."
Five years ago, MTV Networks' cable channel TV Land repositioned to catch viewers in their 40s. It replaced prime-time reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Leave it to Beaver" with repeats of "Roseanne" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." And it put out a call to agents and producers: Pitch us the pilots the networks have deemed "too old."
One result is "Hot in Cleveland," TV Land's original comedy series about three L.A. women stuck in Cleveland en route to Paris, co-starring Betty White and Valerie Bertinelli. The writers insert jokes or guest appearances that hit the boomer sweet spot: Wendie Malick plays an aging actress who cringes when she's offered a role as the grandmother of starlet Megan Fox. When Mary Tyler Moore guest-starred, it was her first role opposite Ms. White since "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
In contrast, says TV Land President Larry W. Jones, a lot of shows have audiences in their 40s, but jokes that revolve around 20-somethings. "We want our audience to feel like they're part of the club," Mr. Jones says.
Last year, NBC Universal's Mr. Wurtzel conducted a study of so-called Alpha Boomers, who are boomers ages 55 to 64, and found them willing to change brands, spend on technology, use social networking sites and purchase online. They spend $1.8 trillion annually on food, cars, personal care and other products. "Our message to advertisers is that if you don't start being more sensitive, you're going to lose these guys," Mr. Wurtzel says.
Amy Chozick, The Wall Street Journal. March 9, 2011
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