This is the season, we are being told, when television is growing up. That may be a flight of critical fancy, but something interesting has happened. And it does have to do with aging, if not by television, then by a large percentage of viewers -- namely, that huge demographic bulge called, variously, the postwar generation (we're talking about The Last Great War, here), or the Baby Boom generation. It is -- how to put it delicately? -- maturing.
Heading toward 40.
Maybe even passing it. (Be it ever so slightly.)
Television's love affair with youth coincided with that generation's youth: newscasters and actors looked for the most part like they'd been found on the lot of "Three's Company." But that generation's youth is turning into a fond memory. It is growing up. There is nothing, however, to suggest it will be any less aggressive in imprinting itself on society than it ever has been. This was the generation that brought us sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, free speech movements, antiwar demonstrations, working mothers, and now spends Saturday mornings watching kids play soccer in suburbia. It's still got the numbers, and now it has the money, too.
And the influence. Last season's big hit was "The Cosby Show," and critical analysis of its success has emphasized its upbeat portrayal of a black middle-class family. But its appeal goes far beyond that: The parents are part of that demographic bulge that radically altered the work force and the family. The mother is a professional, the father is a professional and they both work at raising the children and managing the home. And they seem to be succeeding.
Part of "Cagney & Lacey's" appeal is that it, too, features working women, neither of whom will ever see 30 again. In "Kate & Allie," two divorced mothers share a house with their kids, not with a bachelor, and they're at least a decade past the eligibility cutoff for rooming in "Three's Company."
The Baby Boom generation also brought us divorce, made it acceptable and helped create another phenomenon: displaced homemakers -- older women, mothers of Baby Boomers shed by their husbands after decades of marriage. Bea Arthur, who played Maude, the liberated woman unliberated men loved to hate, returns to NBC, divorced, her former husband married to a child. Her show, "Golden Girls," is the hit of the new season. Over at CBS, Edward Woodward plays a silver-haired hero in "The Equalizer," another new hit.
A maturing Baby Boom generation has signaled through the ratings that it wants to watch dramas and comedies about grownups.
Which brings us to the question of news. Not too long ago, a friend began doing commentary for a network show that was anchored by somebody who looked like he'd just gotten out of grad school. I watched the first show, ready to give a brilliant critique on my friend's work. The first reaction, however, had nothing to do with voice, delivery, content. It was: "You were the grownup on the show."
Another friend has recently started doing television work, and he, too, is of a certain age and is finding himself surrounded by young reporters. "They're good and talented and have terrific futures," he said the other day, "but they don't know anything."
Youth and good looks have been sine qua non in television news (Maria Shriver on the CBS Morning News being the latest example), and women have felt that particularly harshly. Women who have succeeded in network news and are hovering near 40 have voiced apprehension about their staying power. But perhaps the signals the entertainment division has picked up will be understood by the news division: the maturing Baby Boom generation, which challenged everything from presidential infallibility in Vietnam to every social convention imaginable, will want to get its news from grownups.
There is a lesson to be learned from South Florida. Ann Bishop, of WPLG in Miami, is the most popular anchor in that area. In a recent profile, The Wall Street Journal described her as an "overweight, middle-aged, husky-voiced, bespectacled woman." She admits to being in her late forties. Her 6 p.m. show has led the ratings since last spring, the 11 p.m. newscast she coanchors has led the ratings for seven years. The Journal described her as a "walking countertrend." It quoted Barbara Walters on the subject: "There's been a pattern of anchors being picked for their looks and youth. In Ann's case, you feel she was chosen for her intelligence and fairness."
If television's really set on growing up with its viewers, Ms. Bishop could be the cutting edge of a trend, and not a countertrend at all.