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Commentary : WHAT'S LEFT OUT OF TV'S YOUTH POTION?

August 30, 1992|JAMES ENDRST | THE HARTFORD COURANT

There's something for every-something this fall.

If, that is, you're under fiftysomething.

No, you're not getting older.

TV's getting younger.

Thanks to those paradigms of popularity, the arbiters of cool, those mousse-crazy kids of Fox Broadcasting's "Beverly Hills, 90210," the 1992-93 fall season is starting to look like a wall-to-wall Levi's 501 jeans ad.

As if Fox's "90210" and its more adult companion piece "Melrose Place" aren't enough, now there are CBS' "Freshman Dorm" and Fox's "Class of '96" (both about kids in college), "The Heights" (about blue-collar kids in a rock band), NBC's "The Round Table" (about young Washington professionals), ABC's "Sirens" (a mid-season show about young female cops); and well, just more youth than an aging body of viewers can possibly stand.

"This is a very scary trend," says USA Today TV critic Matt Roush. "The young and beautiful whining about everything while they ogle each other's bodies."

The industry wisdom on this trend is unabashedly straightforward and familiar.

"It's just business," or so goes the rationale. Advertisers aren't buying older demographics.

They want the 18- to 49-year-olds (and, ideally, 18- to 34-year-olds). And they want them bad. Viewers over 50 and their shows definitely need not apply.

But not everyone, at least publicly, is buying that line.

CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky told critics in Los Angeles recently that his No. 1, traditionally older-skewing network is proof that the theory is flawed.

"For CBS, they've made a great decision," said Sagansky, "whoever (it was) that decided that at the age of 50 suddenly you stop buying toothpaste and you sit in the corner gumming pabulum and holding your Rogaine ... I applaud them for embracing it, because I think it's going to leave 35% of the audience to us exclusively."

Ironically, or maybe duplicitously, even Aaron Spelling--the man who got the new youth kick rolling with "90210" and continues to feed the trend with "Melrose," "The Heights" and "The Round Table"--says he's concerned about taking the trend too far.

"I think it would be stupid for the networks to forget the older audience," Spelling said recently. "I think it would be just frightening if they did that. I hope the networks will be very careful not to go on such a youth kick that we forget those people that grew up on television."

Sagansky theorized that broadcasters have bought into the "everybody wants to be hip and hop" theory fostered by ad sales people who just happen to be in the much-lusted after demographic.

ABC Entertainment President Robert Iger defended his network's position on the issue, reminding reporters that "our target audience, as you've heard time and time again, is the 18- to 49-year-old demographic because that seems to be the audience our sponsors are most interested in reaching. However, we have, in the crafting of a number of our shows, not ignored that older segment of the audience."

Meaning that there's either an older (read token) character--a parent, a teacher, a cop--on a show with young stars, or that a program (such as "Roseanne") is able to reach an across-the-board audience.

"So I don't think we're trying to alienate that segment of the audience at all," said Iger of the over-50 audience, who, much to his surprise, didn't respond to programs such as "Homefront," the network's prime-time soap set in post-World War II.

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