Chasing Elusive Youth

Is it my imagination or is the 35-plus age group reviled by broadcasters?
March 1, 2003

Is it my imagination or is the 35-plus age group reviled by broadcasters?

This question really began to bug me last spring as I was channel-surfing. The lineup on the frequently indistinguishable cable nets ranged from monster truck rally highlights to a survey of extreme eating contests, and the networks were throwing off one crummy reality-survival theme after another – all clearly targeting a younger demographic. Why and how has courting the 18-to-34 audience become the Holy Grail to broadcasters?

Then I read one of James Surowiecki’s business columns in The New Yorker about ageism in advertising. His piece opens with a reflection on U.S. network ABC’s attempt to lure talk-show host David Letterman from CBS, despite Letterman’s lower ratings than their own news-magazine anchor Ted Koppel. Advertisers pay more for Dave’s show because he has a younger audience; younger viewers are more desirable, so Dave’s a hot guy.

The article ultimately declares that advertisers, and therefore broadcasters, are in pursuit of an idea based on a falsehood. The younger demographic cannot possibly be more valuable than the rest of us – they have less to spend. Sure, they’re impressionable, but it’s been proven that those of us over 40 are too.

Afterward came other articles – ‘Ripe Old Age: The age-old notion that young consumers are the most valuable marketing target is starting to crumble’ in Advertising Age in May: ‘That fixation [on 18 to 34] appears based more on habit and theory… Anybody who is going to let 76 million baby boomers go by as a consumer audience is a fool’; and ‘The Myth of 18-34′ in The New York Times in October: ‘Since the day an ad exec came up with the notion of the targeted demographic, advertisers’ fetishizing of this audience has transformed our culture. But the business premise behind it is bunk.’

The advertising world’s passion for the 18-to-34 demographic was inflamed in the ’60s, when targeting the young people that comprised the baby boom made sense in a channel and brand-limited world. In 1966, 48% of the U.S. population was under 25. This Pepsi Generation was initially hard to reach through the available media, so the media – and ad campaigns – went out of their way to get them.

Although that population bulge is now in its 40s and 50s, everyone is still chasing the younger demographic, and programming-wise, a lot of us feel left out. I sense this more acutely in non-fiction programming, including arts. Slots and budgets have been cut back. I can find the other programs I want, but my idea of documentary is frequently unavailable on TV these days.

It has now been almost one year since I read that first article, yet little has changed. The economic times are still incredibly challenging and the world more uncertain. As a matter of long-term survival, it would be worth-while for advertisers to reconsider the value of the 35-plus demographic.

Broadcasters can wait for this to happen, or better yet, they can take a leadership position. The terrestrial networks and ad-supported cable services, in particular, can join hands to establish properly metered ratings that would more accurately reflect the interests of the viewing public. The archaic, deeply flawed paper-diary system, used during the ‘sweeps’ periods of hyped and stunted programming, sets ad rates and robs broadcasters’ budgets of funds needed year-round.

In the non-fiction arena, networks should give more thought to their individual channel identity, rather than chasing the same demo with programs that look like everyone else’s. Are the viewers, or the networks, well served by so many versions of the same show? Would a consistent, quality profile contribute to long-term channel loyalty? Are production values (and therefore, budgets) a factor in a channel’s ‘quality’ profile? Are there other, better ways to promote and advertise the programs? Can something be learned from documentaries whose success was initially built on clever, grassroots-style campaigns?

I’m certain that good documentaries are also good business. But, I also believe that enlightened self-interest can be a successful governor of politics and corporate concerns. (And, no, I do not believe in the tooth fairy.)

Louise Rosen is managing director of Boston, U.S.-based distrib Louise Rosen Ltd.

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