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Networks talk about value of older viewers but still program to young

May 23, 2011 | 10:58 am


There have been several prominent stories lately about how the sales divisions of the broadcast networks are on a mission to convince Madison Avenue that viewers over the age of 50 are valuable.

Someone forgot to tell the folks in programming.

Last week was “upfront week” in New York, which is when the big broadcast networks -– CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox and the CW –- tout their fall programming to advertisers and once again it was one big episode of the bold and the beautiful.

CBS’s hottest comedy is about two attractive twentysomething waitresses. NBC is betting on a sitcom based on comedian Chelsea Handler’s books and comedy act that highlight her vodka consumption and bed hopping, and a drama set in a Playboy club. ABC, as usual, looks to the evil underbelly of suburbia for entertainment, while Fox is hoping that alt-music/indie movie queen Zooey Deschanel can score laughs. The CW’s idea of a show appealing to older viewers is casting one-time vampire slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Unless the entertainment chiefs at the networks figure the best way to entice people over the age of 50 is to give them something young and hot to look at, it’s unclear how their new fall schedules are in sync with what their counterparts in sales are spinning to media buyers.

The reality is that for all the talk about the increasing value of older viewers, the networks are still youth-obsessed. There are many reasons for this and none of them should leave middle-age and older viewers angry.

First, while it is true that most people over the age of 45 and 50 make more money than people over the age of 25 and in theory then should be of greater value for advertisers, that’s not the issue. The main reason advertisers want younger viewers is because they believe older viewers tend to be more loyal to their brands and unlikely to switch. Take it as a compliment, the more mature one gets, the less likely they are to be fooled by some fancy commercial. Also, with many having children later, younger people often have more disposable income.

Second, older people watch more television than younger people, which means it is easier for advertisers to reach them. That lowers their value. Advertisers and networks are more interested in wooing someone who ignores them rather than embracing those who want their company. It’s a lot like dating.

The downside to all this, of course, are a bunch of shows that likely have little appeal to any adult who has anything other than sex or violence on the brain. There are only a handful of smart shows on broadcast and cable including CBS’s “The Good Wife,” TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age” and AMC’s “Mad Men” that do more than offer cleavage, stilettos and guns.

There is also an assumption that younger viewers aren’t interested in complex dramas or sophisticated comedies.

And that is something to be angry about.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: CBS' "Two Broke Girls" stars Kat Dennings, left, and Beth Behrs. Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS