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ON TV / BRIAN LOWRY

Not in the demo, but calling shots

January 29, 2003|BRIAN LOWRY

It seems beyond debate that TV's power brokers are preoccupied with youth, down to their very speech patterns; executives talk almost exclusively about how shows perform "in the demo," the 18-to-49 age bracket. It's a demographic slice that dictates what sort of advertising rates they can command and, consequently, the only measure they care about.

That may be, but it's equally undeniable that many of the most compelling stories these days, often regarding the most powerful figures in the media, involve those who outgrew "the demo" before the Reagan administration. Incongruously, these newsmakers -- at an age that ostensibly compels networks to dismiss them -- are staging their own version of "That 70s Show."

Take Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, 79, who, based on published accounts, wants more unimpeded authority in running the massive conglomerate that owns CBS, MTV and Paramount, to name just a few of its assets.

Then there's News Corp. counterpart Rupert Murdoch, 71, whose Fox network is galvanizing millions of young adults with "American Idol," a project Murdoch himself is said to have championed. In fact, the mandate to reel in such viewers is a major impetus behind the wave of so-called reality television engulfing prime time, since the genre disproportionately appeals to them.

Murdoch is also trying to sell the Dodgers and buy DirecTV, intent on amassing a global network of satellite services that would come dangerously close to turning him into the equivalent of a James Bond villain.

Among the issues grappled with by Redstone's CBS subordinates, meanwhile, has been a public-relations headache involving "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt, who, at 80, had previously stated his intention to die at his desk. After accusing the network of trying to elbow him out, Hewitt agreed to a compromise this week keeping him in his present job midway through 2004.

Of course, Hewitt is a whippersnapper next to Mike Wallace and Andy Rooney, both 84, while CBS' 71-year-old anchor, Dan Rather, has been bopping around Iraq of late and contemporary Doris Roberts recently picked up a second straight Emmy for "Everybody Loves Raymond." With another sweeps period beginning Thursday (didn't one just end?), ABC will also doubtless rely upon Barbara Walters, 71, to tear-jerk in viewers on "20/20," in addition to shipping her daytime chat fest "The View" to Los Angeles.

The biggest TV audience of the season, by the way, just watched a senior citizen, 66-year-old John Madden, "boom" and "pow" his way through Super Bowl XXXVII, alongside that young pup Al Michaels, 58. And while Ryan Seacrest has achieved fame hosting "American Idol," millions tuned in this month as well for the American Music Awards and Golden Globes -- telecasts produced by Seacrest's idol, 73-year-old Dick Clark.

Larry Gelbart, 74, is working on the script for a much-belated sequel to "The Candidate" and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Frank Pierson, 77, has another movie in the works.

Perhaps what's most remarkable is that, despite these examples, dedication to "the demo" remains more firmly entrenched than ever. Indeed, Fox and CBS executives fret over their performance among young adults so as not to disappoint Murdoch and Redstone, the septuagenarians to whom they must answer.

That might help explain why there was so little fanfare earlier this month when a judge tossed out an age-discrimination suit brought against the major networks, studios and talent agencies by a group of writers over 40, rejecting their class-action claim largely on procedural grounds.

Ken Dychtwald, a corporate consultant who wrote the books "Age Wave" and "Age Power: How the 21st Century Will be Ruled by the New Old," has long argued about the fallacy of steadfastly chasing the under-50 set, making the case that baby boomers, in particular, are going into middle and old age kicking and screaming.

"We live in a society that spent much of the 20th century building a cult of youth," Dychtwald said, adding that despite data indicating the spending power and vitality of older people, America continues to live "in this enormous trance we've constructed, where young is good and old is bad.... We have all become accustomed to discriminating against people over 40 and 50."

If people in the entertainment business chafe at all the inconsistencies, however, the prospect of any grand reflection about them gets lost in the rush to meet quarterly earning projections. And to be fair, executives are simply playing the game by the established rules, with only the disenfranchised or those caught with their demos down having any incentive to second-guess them.

Moreover, though the ultimate decision-makers are usually over 50, the front-line troops who determine what scripts and concepts get through the door are generally in their 20s and 30s -- and, not surprisingly, tend to be more responsive to people their own age, who are often part of their social circles.

"The problems are as social and cultural as they are legal," said Bob Shayne, a writer for such shows as "Magnum P.I." who was part of the class-action lawsuit. No matter how many wrinkles top executives might have, he added, they know the money lies in youth and surround themselves with lower-level executives who look the part to tap into it.

Despite their recent legal setback, some of the writers appear determined to persevere. Ann Marcus, whose credits include "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," told The Times last week that she is fighting not so much for herself as colleagues in their 40s and 50s "being pushed out of the market by network and studio executives who wrongly believe they cannot speak to people in their 20s and 30s."

As for those "in the demo," you might not thank them now, but unless your name happens to be Murdoch or Redstone, odds are you may feel inclined to thank them someday.

Brian Lowry's column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at brian.lowry@latimes.com.

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