Study: TV's Youth Obsession Backfiring
Sunday, November 19, 2006; 4:12 PM
NEW YORK -- Americans born between 1946 and 1964 are accustomed to being catered to, but that's not the case with much of television today. Now there's some new evidence that they're finding this mighty irritating. A study conducted by Harris Interactive suggests that the television industry's obsession with youth is backfiring.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they believe that most TV programming and advertising is targeted toward people under 40, the survey said. More than 80 percent of adults over 40 say they have a hard time finding TV shows that reflect their lives.
A significant number of baby boomers _ 37 percent _ say they aren't happy with what's on television, according to the study.
"The amount of people dissatisfied with television overall was a pretty big eye-opening thing for us," said Larry Jones, president of the TV Land cable network, which commissioned the study.
To a certain extent, the generation that decades ago warned against trusting people over 30 can blame itself for the predicament. The TV industry's slavish devotion to ratings within the 18-to-49-year-old demographic started when most baby boomers fit into that group.
The theory among advertisers is that it's important to reach young people as their preferences are forming _ get them hooked on a certain toothpaste or soda early and they'll be hooked for life. Advertisers will pay a premium for young viewers: $335 for every thousand people in the 18-to-24 age range that a network delivers, for example. Viewers aged 55-to-64 are worth only $119 for every thousand, according to Nielsen Media Research.
That's why ABC and NBC conduct all of their business with advertisers in the 18-to-49 demo. From a financial standpoint, if you're 50 or over, you mean nothing to those networks' executives. For Fox, the CW, MTV, BET and countless other networks, even 40 is too old.
The peak year for births within the baby boom, Jones noted, was 1957 _ meaning all those people are turning 49 this year.
Much of the television industry isn't aging with them.
"They've just never changed or haven't realized that the population has moved on," said Randy Berkowitz, vice president of research for Combe Inc., which makes health products and beauty aids.
Berkowitz believes that "people are just not in tune with TV because they can't relate to it anymore."
Jones, who's 46, said he wants to come home at night and see an entertainment program that appeals to his sensibilities. Some people may find Paris Hilton funny on "The Simple Life," for example _ not him.
To a surprising extent, advertising is also alienating. The Harris Interactive study found that half of baby boomers say they tune out commercials that are clearly aimed at young people. An additional one-third said they'd go out of their way NOT to buy such a product.
"I'm not saying that every show, every network should reshape, but that's an awfully high level of dissatisfaction among the largest generation group of all time," said Ken Dychtwald, a psychologist who worked with Harris Interactive on the study. (Harris conducted an online survey of 4,220 adults between April 28-May 15 this year, with a sampling error of plus or minus 1.5 percent).
Some advertisers have responded to the aging population. Financial services firms, for example, see many potential customers advancing toward retirement. Two decades ago drug companies didn't advertise on TV; now you could fill a medicine cabinet with all the products hawked on the evening news.
But these were cases where the companies making these products saw the opportunity, not necessarily the TV industry, Berkowitz said.
TV Land's Jones is already using the survey in his business. The results have convinced him that, more than ever, his network of mostly classic TV shows should be boomer-centric, he said. He also comes armed with the survey when he meets with the Madison Avenue types who buy advertising time.
One statistic he's sure to cite: The survey found 51 percent of the postwar generation describe themselves as "open to new ideas." Meanwhile, only 12 percent of young adults think the older folks feel that way.
Why does that matter? Jones said the average media buyer or planner is under 30. Many are undoubtedly hired for their know-how in appealing to a specific generation, and it isn't the baby boomers.
"There is this huge perception versus reality situation in the marketplace," he said.
Jones is pushing the idea of a "middlescence," about 40-to-59-year-olds who don't feel young anymore but don't feel old, and have plenty of discretionary income.
With the continued carving of the television audience into smaller slices because of all the networks on the air, the chance for advertisers to reach particular niches increases, said Evan Shapiro, who had his own marketing firm and is now head of the Independent Film Channel. Shapiro, 37, doesn't buy the idea that there's nothing on TV for older viewers.
"If you are a 50-year-old male or female, there is an enormous amount of television for you," he said. "It's just not on all the places that it used to be."
Still, Shapiro said he senses that marketers are slowly waking up to the potential in older TV viewers.
But by the time it happens, the children of the baby boomers will be the focus, making their parents even more irrelevant in television's eyes, he said.
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EDITOR'S NOTE _ David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org