WASHINGTON — Are you ready for "Archie Bunker, the Golden Years" or perhaps "Maude Gets Medicare"?
Norman Lear, erstwhile king of the TV sitcom, has a new idea for a cable network. Maybe just as important, he has a powerful new partner to create it with: the American Assn. of Retired Persons, the 32-million-member Washington-based lobbying group for older Americans.
AARP and Lear are in the preliminary stages of planning a network that would target viewers over 50, a sort of forgotten demographic among youth-happy advertisers and broadcasters. Sources familiar with the venture say it would air a mix of original programs and those recycled from the days when Lear was dominating CBS's schedule with the likes of "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons" and "Maude."
The still-unnamed channel is counting not only on Lear's creative touch and AARP's marketing muscle but also on the graying of America. Besides the 64 million Americans already over 50, baby boomers--the first generation raised on TV--will start hitting the half-century mark at a rate of one every 7 1/2 seconds starting next month.
"Norman came to us and said, 'I've got an idea for you fellas,' " said James R. Holland, a former NBC executive who is AARP's communications director. "You know, when I first came here [nine years ago], I started thinking, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a cable channel?' At the very least, it could be a creative way to communicate with our members."
Easier said than done, of course. Even with the imprimatur of Lear and AARP, the channel will be fighting for distribution on cable TV systems that have a limited ability to carry new channels. One channel that targets older viewers, the Washington-based Nostalgia Network, has been trying to crack the market for 10 years and is now available in only about one of every seven cable TV households nationwide.
Besides, Lear and AARP are sailing into some stiff competition for the attention of Golden Agers. At least two other would-be cable channels with the same audience in mind, the Prime Life Network and the Golden America Network, are also seeking distribution. Prime Life, headed by a former CBS executive, is expected to begin airing in March.
Though neither Lear nor his company, Act III Communications of Los Angeles, was talking this week, several TV executives said AARP's involvement could be critical. Its membership list, said one, contains the names of almost half of all the people over 50 in the country, and its magazine, Modern Maturity, has the largest circulation of any magazine in the nation--giving AARP two powerful promotional vehicles for a cable channel.
AARP and the others catering to seniors voice a common theme: Despite their vast numbers and their considerable discretionary income, seniors get short shrift in the TV business. AARP itself decried this in a recent issue of Modern Maturity. Its cover story "The Plot to Kill 'Murder, She Wrote' " was a case study of how CBS dumped the long-running series from its prime Sunday night spot because advertisers didn't like its older audience.
In fact, the big picture is a little more complicated when it comes to older viewers. To some extent, said Daniel Fischer, senior vice president of research at the Discovery Channel, advertising and TV executives remain captive to increasingly outmoded ideas about older people being stuck in poverty and being so faithful to certain brands that no amount of advertising will persuade them to change.
In part, that's why TV executives brag about the numbers of viewers they attract between the ages of 18 and 49 (or 18 and 35) and rarely mention their older customers. It also partially explains why a show such as Fox's "Melrose Place," with its huge number of young viewers, will command a higher ad price than "Murder, She Wrote," even though "Murder" has a larger audience overall, Fischer said.
But advertisers also know another important fact: Older people watch a lot more TV than those young, hip viewers, which means there's less reason to single them out.