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TV and Advertisers Catering to Older Viewers

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: Now that I’ve turned 60, I have become more aware of the youth emphasis of television shows.  Recently, however, I’ve noticed a change.  In fact there are a few more shows that I now can relate to.  Is it my imagination or has there been a shift?  A change would be a welcome relief.     

Answer: No, it is not your imagination.  A change is occurring.  In fact, journalists Bill Carter and Tanzina Vega wrote in a recent New York Times article  (May 14), “After 40 years of catering to younger consumers, advertisers and media executives are coming to a different realization: older people aren’t so bad, after all.”

In the late 1990s, I developed and taught a course for several years on Aging and Business, at USC’s Davis School at the Andrus Gerontology Center.  My mantra then – and today – is “a vast number of U.S. businesses are in the business of aging.”  Unfortunately many of them still don’t know it yet.  The key point is that older Americans are significant consumers that affect advertising and programming.

The aging of the boomers has moved the issue to the forefront.  Numbers matter.   The boomer market, those born between 1946 and 1964, consists of 78 million individuals.  In January, the first turned 65.

The shift is not only due to demographics; economics plays a role, as well. The recent unemployment rate for older Americans is lower than for younger people.  According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, those ages 45 to 64 have the highest median weekly earnings of any age group in the United States. Depending on which report one reads, the boomer market is worth b $2 trillion to $3 trillion.

Television advertisers are paying attention.  Typically, according to the New York Times article, they have focused on two groups:  those ages 18 to 49 and those 25 to 54.  Once viewers reached 55, they had little value – at least to the advertisers.  Older viewers were perceived as brand-loyal and unlikely to change their buying patterns based on television advertisements.

Big mistake.

The Times further describes a research study on a group labeled “alpha boomers,” conducted by Alan Wurtzel, president of research for NBC Universal. This group is the leading edge, or oldest, of the boomers.  The study made NBC television programmers aware of the value of the 55-plus audience.  As a result, the network is launching a new series, “The Playboy Club,” set in the 1960s, and renewed the drama “Harry’s Law” starring Kathy Bates, who is 62.  Bates is portrayed as a feisty and successful attorney – and attractive too.

Television advertisers also follow the spending patterns of viewers.  The NBC study found that those age 55 to 64 spent more than the average consumer on home improvement, large appliances, casual dining and cosmetics.   The also spent a lot on electronics and digital devises.

This group was just as likely as younger folks to have high-definition televisions, digital video recorders and broadband service. They don’t necessarily play video games but they certainly have their share of iPods and iPads.

The Time also notes that big changes have occurred since 2006.  The median age of audiences for every broadcast network has increased.    For NBC, the current median age is 50.1,  up from 48.5. ABC’s audience increased from age 47.4 to 52.3,  and CBS now has a median viewer age of 56, compared to 53 in 2006.  Fox, the youngest network, saw an increase from age 4l.5 to 45.4 years.

This information translates well into specific shows. As mentioned in the Times article, 10 years ago, Fox’s “American Idol,” once considered the hot shot show for young people, ended its first season with a viewer median age of 32.1. Now, that age is 47.2.   And ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” has a large number of viewers age 50 and older.

So, the change is not imagined.  And this is just the beginning.  Older viewers will continue to be a market for advertisers that will drive programming.

Thank you for your good question, one that reminds us that mature Americans need to be recognized and valued for their purchasing power.  It’s good business.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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