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What aging audience means for the future of network television

Michael Santoli
Michael Santoli

Baby Boomers and television came of age together and sustained one another through their prosperous prime. Will Boomers and TV as we know it die together, too?

New analysis of television viewing trends shows the TV audience is aging much faster than previously believed, as Americans under the age of 50 turn away from network programming, even when DVR-captured delayed viewing is included.

Media analyst Michael Nathanson of MoffettNathanson Research says the median age of the TV audience in the 2013-14 season rose 6%, or 2.5 years, to 44.4 years, from four years earlier. In the past five years, he says, the age of the typical TV viewer has advanced 5% faster than that of the average American. (The 2012 U.S. Census report has the median age of the American population at 37.2).

This “ratings-weighted average age” has climbed by 7% in the past few years among broadcast networks, to 53.9 years, and 8% for cable networks, to 40 years.

Tablets and time-shifting

The climb in broad TV audience age is almost entirely due to the rapid decline in traditional TV viewership by younger people – but not only the very young. Nathanson calculates primetime live viewing is down 13% since 2010, yet it has not dropped measurably among those over age 55. Even as older viewers maintain their traditional tube time, a separate Nielsen study found those between 50 and 64 watched 19 minutes of digital video last quarter, up from 11 minutes a year earlier. 

Nathanson's results are based on Nielsen ratings, which capture “live + 7” viewing, or shows watched live or within a week on TV via a digital video recorder or video on demand. They don’t include shows watched on tablets or phones, or those viewed beyond seven days from original broadcast. Yet those live or near-live programs are the ones advertisers principally use to reach the still-large pools of consumers network shows are created for.

The graying of the TV audience has a few big implications for the media industry. Advertisers and TV executives for years have focused on ratings within “the demo” – people between age 18 and 49 – almost to the exclusion of others.

Standard wisdom has held that advertisers seek younger viewers because their brand loyalties are still shifting, making them susceptible to marketing messages. Companies still are willing to pay a premium to get at these coveted consumers, but as they become an ever-smaller part of the TV audience, programmers may no longer try to fashion shows for them.

Nathanson says he was prompted to examine the age breakdown of TV ratings by a reader of his reports “who also happens to be a senior cable network research executive,” who suggested that “more networks are now competing for older demographics and focusing less on the more ‘elusive’ younger demos.”

While he says he can’t prove such a shift has taken hold, Nathanson figures it’s logical to expect “more ‘Blue Bloods,’ more ‘CSIs,” to cite two typical CBS one-hour police dramas popular with that network’s older loyalists.

In this way, scripted TV might follow in the path of Broadway theater, a once-broad medium that came to be dominated by global tourists and older folks. Now, most Broadway productions are made specifically for tourists and older people. Similarly but on the other end of the spectrum, Hollywood economics became over-reliant on young men and the global box office,  so comic book vehicles and other effects-laden blockbusters hog studio budgets.

There are other implications of the slow aging and winnowing of the TV audience.

- Expect the continued escalation in the cost of sports-league television rights. Live sports in general, and pro football most of all, is the only form of programming that reliably reaches younger eyeballs in real time.

- Advertisers will turn their attention even more intensely toward Facebook Inc. (FB) and other social networks, which younger consumers increasingly use as their portal to media and pretty much everything else. Facebook's towering $200 billion valuation certainly reflects broad expectations it's becoming the main consumer advertising platform for this century.

- Programmers will be increasingly willing to experiment with alternative distribution platforms for their content. With less risk of cannibalizing one’s core younger audience by offering shows on Netflix Inc. (NFLX), networks will try to cut deals to reach the mobile, “time-shifting” viewer, wherever he or she can be found.

Time Warner Inc.'s (TWX) Warner Brothers television production division last week sold global streaming rights to its forthcoming "Gotham," Batman-inspired series to Netflix, to begin after the first season airs on 21st Century Fox Inc.'s (FOX, FOXA) Fox broadcast network. While an isolated example, the deal shows the big streaming outlets are emerging as a viable alternative to the typical syndication market. 

- In terms of the shows themselves, we might see even more formulaic dramas and sitcoms, more pharmaceutical commercials and more older leading men and women in primetime, to better reflect the core viewing audience, rather than the sleeker, younger people who aren’t paying attention now anyway. 

TV networks, in this way, might take to heart the lyrics of a seminal Boomer tune: "If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with...”