Bringing in the alpha boomers

The 55-to-64 demographic is the fastest growing in America, and it's a demographic that was raised on television. Yet it's one that has typically been given short shrift by advertisers and media buyers in the U.S. What are the "alpha boomers" looking for in non-fiction entertainment, and are they going to see more of it in the years ahead?
March 23, 2012

Oprah Winfrey. Bill Gates. Arianna Huffington.

These three are among the most powerful people in media today, and they have other things in common besides their bulging bank accounts. For instance, they’re each over 55.

Also, now that they’re at that age, nobody seems to give a damn about what they’re watching on television.

In the current U.S. television ratings system, once an individual reaches 55 and drops off the 25-to-54 demo, they’re no longer measurable except in the general groupings of P2+ or 50+. But in the U.S., the 55-to-64 demo is the fastest growing in the country. And it’s a demo with dollars, spending more than US$1.8 trillion annually, according to a 2010 study conducted by NBCUniversal.

That study, which sought to dig deeper into the 55-to-64 or “Alpha Boomer” demographic, generated much press upon its release, and still provokes discussion with its findings. Alan Wurtzel, head of research for NBCUniversal and the commissioner of the study, isn’t surprised by that, but wonders why advertisers still seem to be willfully glossing over the generation that grew up with TV. And he’s not the only one.

In digging through census data for the study, Wurtzel found that in the U.S., someone turns 55 every seven seconds. “Every seven seconds someone moves into this essentially unmeasured, or certainly unmonetized target and yet they’re incredibly valuable,” he says. “They account for $1.8 trillion to spend, and that’s a lot of money.”

Other findings from the study took media players and watchers alike by surprise – for example, statistics proving that the 55-64 demo is remarkably tech-savvy, and the fact that while the 55-64 demo is rapidly growing, the 18-49 demo, also known as the Holy Grail for advertisers and TV networks, is shrinking.

But for those who have been operating for some time in the boomer-friendly media space, while they may not have been surprised by the data, they welcomed its presentation.

“There was nothing in the study that we didn’t already inherently know or have data on,” says Elliot Jacobson, senior vice president of programming and production for U.S. cable net RLTV (formerly Retirement Living TV), currently available in 15 million U.S. homes. “However, the way it was structured was very effective, and having NBC come out with this was significant validation for us.

“In fact, I’d think our ad sales team would say that it was a game-changer – the fact that NBC acknowledged the importance of this demo and took the time and the investment to put together such a comprehensive study was significant,” he adds.

Moses Znaimer, renowned media magnate and founder of Canadian networks Citytv and MuchMusic, is the force behind ZoomerMedia, a multi-platform mediaco incorporating television via the Vision and ONE cable nets (see Lifestyle Focus, page 59), multiple online properties including and (soon to be found under umbrella site, radio, and print via Zoomer Magazine. He says that while he applauds the attention the study received, it’s been a story he’s been spreading for years, and one that marketers still seem slow to digest.

“The issue is always monetization,” he says. “What does it take for crushing reality to pierce through an industry which prides itself on being forward looking? It has been devastatingly, amazingly slow in turning its attention to the truth, which is that we’ve got the money, we do the voting, we’re living longer, the succeeding generation is smaller, and why are you still spending only 5% of your ad money against that demo?”

It’s a question that marketers and network ad sales teams should be grappling with, especially in the face of the shrinking 18-49 demo. “What you have is a leaky bucket phenomenon,” says Wurtzel. “The younger people are not replenishing this demo as quickly as the older people are leaving it, so it’s becoming smaller and smaller.”

Wurtzel says that demographic measurements as currently employed by Nielsen might have made sense when they were first rolled out in the 1950s, but they need to evolve to fully capture the needs and habits of the television viewing audience, which is naturally aging.

“Back in the ’50s, when demographics were invented and 25-54 was established as one of the demographic groups, when you were a 64-year-old, your life expectancy was four [more] years. Now, if you’re 64, the life expectancy is 14 years, which takes you to 80.”

Nielsen, for its part, has been sharing its findings regarding the attractiveness of the demographic “outliers” – those under 25 and over 54. A recent study from Nielsen put the number of TV viewing hours per day for the 55-plus demo at 6.5 hours – the highest across any demo. The age group also spends 85 minutes per day online – 15 minutes more than the 12-24 set.

Wurtzel, Znaimer and Jacobson all agree that a large part of the battle in recognizing the value of the alpha boomer audience is convincing media buyers, many of whom tend to be in the younger demos themselves.

“The so-called smart marketer says, ‘We don’t need to try – we have them anyway,’” says Znaimer. “And it’s true – there are large, older audiences scattered among conventional media. But the media themselves are ashamed of this audience, they don’t frame it. I’ve heard it in professional circles called ‘waste.’ If what you’re selling is 18-49 or 25-54, then anything over that 55 [age] number is ‘waste.’”

It’s a concept that’s also mirrored by the general trend of networks “aging down,” or aiming to lower their median viewing ages.

“There would be dancing in the hallways of a network if its median age went down a year,” says Wurtzel. “But that’s going against demographic gravity.”

“A lot of shows that a Nat Geo or History air, geared towards a 35-and-younger audience, still have a general appeal to people that are older,” says Jacobson. “It’s not as if you reach this threshold of 50 or 60 and all of a sudden you’re not interested in engaging television.”

Thus, for network development execs and producers looking to tap into this economically desirable and TV-loyal demo, what sort of programming works? Jacobson says that just as the 50-plus audience is diverse, so too is RLTV’s programming approach, ranging from transformational shows geared towards life transitions (such as empty nesting) to more informational themes, such as finance.

Reality and docusoaps also rate, provided they’re about relatable issues and situations (such as the intergenerational family business docusoap Family Pickle).

Znaimer agrees that boomers, or zoomers (“boomers with zip”), are like any other television audience and gravitate towards programming that represents them while entertaining them.

“If you want to attract a group, you put up protagonists who are like it,” he says. “You make them capable and attractive, and portray them in real-life situations instead of manufactured ones, and the audience will find you.”

If more and more viewers who hit that magic number see less and less of their interests represented on their networks of choice, they’ll likely tune out, and take their chunk of that $1.8 trillion spending power elsewhere. Thus, Wurtzel, Znaimer, Jacobson and other alpha boomer advocates suggest that networks, media measurement companies and media buyers alike wake up to the reality of an aging, but entertainment-hungry, populace.

“This is the beginning of an inevitable movement which will become more apparent with every passing year,” says Znaimer, “or dare I say, every passing day.”

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.