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TV starts to notice others in the room

The 18-to-49 age 'demo' may be overrated. Future programming could

January 11, 2009|Scott Collins

The television business may be rediscovering that there are Americans who matter who aren't ages 18 to 49.

For the last 20 years, the television industry has been all about young-adult demographic groups, or "demos" in the slang of Madison Avenue, because marketers have believed that young people are most likely to develop lifelong loyalties to certain brands. Thus, whichever network attracts the most adults under 50 has been considered the winner, commanding premium rates for commercial time.

As a result, network executives have driven themselves to distraction chasing young people, struggling to find programs with appeal for viewers in their 20s and 30s. During the 1990s, for instance, executives spent enormous sums trying to find youth-oriented shows in the vein of NBC's smash sitcom "Friends." Meanwhile, people of other ages slowly drifted away to their own niche shows on cable TV or other media.

Yet there are growing signs that network TV is moving away from its relentless focus on demos -- and that could have a huge influence on future programming. There's a growing sense in the industry that the 18-to-49 category's importance to marketers may be wildly overblown. Moreover, in an age of DVRs, multichannel systems and increasingly tiny ratings, the demo obsession may itself be pushing down ratings, exacerbating the industry's problems and excluding from consideration too many programs that could have broad appeal.

This season, in fact, CBS has zoomed to first place in both mass audience and the more carved-up, youth-skewing demographics by sticking to a "big tent" strategy of such crowd-pleasing, familiar shows as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "NCIS," plus a new crime drama with broad appeal, "The Mentalist."

"Our philosophy has always been [that] limiting the world to 18-to-49 was rather short-sighted," CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves said in a recent interview. "I think it's rather ironic that as of today we're in first place in every single demographic, including 18-to-49. We have always believed that a wider tent was a much smarter way to go."

The evidence extends beyond one network. The No. 1 TV series for the last four years has been Fox's "American Idol," a family-friendly talent contest that returns to the airwaves this week. And although most of network TV has continued to decline this decade, the audience for the Super Bowl, which has aired on various networks and is perhaps the ultimate group media event, has soared to record levels.

Meanwhile, a new research company called TRA Inc. has the potential to revolutionize audience measurement with a system that attempts to analyze how viewers -- including those 50 and over -- spend their money, rather than just tally what they watch. That could enable marketers to target audiences with much more precision than in the past, network executives and media buyers say, and reveal previously unrecognized purchasing habits across all age groups.

As Steve Sternberg, executive vice president of audience analysis at the New York-based media firm Magna, puts it, "While demos are still important, the industry needs to move beyond them." Sternberg believes the networks often forget that, even in an era of multiple television sets in each home, most prime-time TV shows are still watched by families. "TV has always been and will continue to be a group medium: About 80% of homes have only one set on during prime time."

None of this means, of course, that the 18-to-49 yardstick is about to become as obsolete as rabbit-ear antennas. Young people remain the most important early adopters of new products and cultural trends. Their purchase decisions are vital to marketers in such big categories as consumer technology, movies and cars.

This is true even though some network executives and media buyers think the notion that young people's brand loyalty must be won early is, in Moonves' words, "an old wives' tale."

The idea was that "if you bought Crest toothpaste when you were 18 years old, when you turned 50 you would still use Crest toothpaste," Moonves said.

Indeed, Sternberg and others said they knew of no reliable studies backing that theory.

Also, Moonves adds, "a 50-year-old today is different than a 50-year-old 25 years ago. The life expectancy is longer; the boomers are doing more in their 50s, they're experiencing more. It's a very different generation."

The networks have not always focused so intently on demos. Since the dawn of commercial TV in the late 1940s, Nielsen Media Research (and its predecessor entities) has measured total viewers, which remain a key snapshot of program popularity.

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