The Television Business:

Youth, Youth, Youth

Yes, "eyeballs" equal ratings, and higher ratings equal more ad dollars.

But the picture is more complex than just ratings. The demographics of a network program's viewership is also very important. For instance, an advertiser that sells motorized wheelchairs will not want to pay a lot of money to advertise on a youth-oriented program like Dawson's Creek. An advertiser selling hip-hop music CDs will not wish to advertise on a program like Washington Week in Review, which skews older and predominantly white.

Controlled by Madison Avenue

The television business is really controlled by the advertising business, and suffers from all the arbitrary trends and fashionable theories pushed by agencies. Chief among these right now is the lemming-like rush to "buy young eyeballs," a revolting phrase that means advertising on shows that attract younger viewers. Advertisers will pay huge amounts to advertise on a show that attracts young viewers (the coveted teenage and twenties audience) and will pay much less to advertise on a show that attracts an older audience.

The coveted target audience is 18-49, with many ad agencies emphasizing the 18-34 group; some focus more on the even younger 13-24 group, hoping to cultivate future band-loyal customers. Once you hit 50, you fall off the radar scope; tastes of older audiences are no longer considered by most networks.

Jeff Zucker, president of entertainment at NBC, explains: "What Madison Avenue decided was that the people who have the most disposable income, who make the biggest decisions, who drive the buying are between the ages of 18-49…If that's the game they want to play, then we're going to play that game too." NBC has very deliberately developed the largest 18-49 audience of the four major networks. If the younger age group will tune in to shows that "push the envelope" in taste and vulgarity, well then, that's what the networks will provide to grab the profitable audience.

Supply and demand works here as it does everywhere else. If ad agencies have clients lined up (based on their agency's advice) waving dollars to buy spots on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but few clients want time on the older-skewed series Diagnosis Murder, then the available ad spots on Buffy cost a lot and those on Dick Van Dyke's show cost less. And this is true even though Diagnosis Murder during its long run pulled much higher ratings - many more "eyeballs" - than did Buffy. The now-cancelled series continues to pull audiences slightly larger than Buffy in syndicated reruns on the Pax Network!

The Emperor's New Clothes

The problem is, there is very little scientific basis for this pervasive philosophy for commercial sales. For a business that lives and dies by numbers, ratings, and surveys, this underlying architecture of the business appears to be largely based on old habits of Madison Avenue and tired, untested assumptions. Part of the assumption is that the 18-49 age group has the disposable income; but there's more to it than that. There is an underlying assumption that older folks are brand-loyal, and have already settled into buying habits that can't be shifted. Younger folks, on the other hand (the theory goes) have not yet settled into such habits and can still be more easily swayed into becoming loyal to another brand. However, outside of fickle teenage fads, there is little evidence that teens can be made into brand-loyal customers.

David Poltrack, Vice President of Advertising for CBS, has plenty of evidence that Madison Avenue is mistaken. He's tracked commercial prices, audience demographics, and actual sales over the years and insists that Madison Avenue is just plain wrong. He carefully tracked the effectiveness of sneaker commercials on The Simpsons (one of TV's youngest-skewing shows at the time) and Murder She Wrote (one of the oldest-skewing shows). Results? The company sold more sneakers to the older Murder She Wrote audience than to the Simpsons audience. Not a few more, but a lot more; and at a much lower advertising cost. When Poltrack showed the results to ad agencies, they were astonished, and started to talk about a new strategy. "It made a difference for about two weeks," says Bill Allen, a former CBS VP. "Then they went back to their old habits." Old habits die hard in any business, it seems.

"The fact is," says Poltrack, "that all of the statistical evidence, all of the marketing research that's been done, documents that the fastest growing audience of importance is the 55-plus audience." And statistically, these are the folks with the money, too. But most networks aren't even including the 55-plus audience in their plans because Madison Avenue still won't pay for them.

What is strange is that the 55-plus audience is the one with the money. The mean net worth of a family headed by someone under 35 (Madison Avenue's favorite demographic) is $65,900. The mean net worth of a family headed by someone between 55 and 64 is $530,230 and between 65 and 74, $465,500.

60 Minutes' Morley Safer recently did an exposé piece, titled "Tyranny of the Young," documenting the advertising philosophy that controls network programming. In the story's conclusion, Safer accused marketers of basing decisions on "a kind of fantasy science."

Probably due in part to Poltrack's research, CBS held onto its older audience for a long time. But eventually the Viacom-owned network had to give in to the prevailing business model no matter how much evidence there was against it: they simply couldn't sustain profits with the waning commercial dollars, even when their programs pulled very large audiences. Sadly, CBS has moved to more programs like Survivor and has dropped older-skewing series like Diagnosis Murder.

 A Modest Proposal

Columnist Dale McFeatters is tired of being pushed around by the taste of kids. He suggests that older audiences strike back by watching teen-oriented shows in droves -- thus pushing their demographics up and causing them to be cancelled!

Read the column


The Print Media Does It, Too!

The blame doesn't only rest in the television world, however. Poltrack points out the youth-oriented shows receive much heavier coverage by newspapers, as well.

Television coverage is a major area of interest for newspaper readers, and television reporters focus editorially on youth-oriented programming. During the past television season, the youth-oriented WB programs Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek and Felicity were featured in some 1,700 articles in 56 major newspapers. Each of these programs was watched by about 4 million people, or 4 percent of the readers of these newspapers. Two other prime-time programs, Walker, Texas Ranger and JAG, were watched by four and three times as many readers, respectively, but received only a fraction of the press coverage, approximately 700 articles each.

Read Poltrack's Article:
The Ad Community's Obsession With Youth Has Led Mass Media Astray

Read what the former president of NBC News has to say:
Aging Viewers: The Best Is Yet To Be by Lawrence Grossman

Sex Doesn't Sell Either?

It appears now that some other Madison Avenue mantras may be coming into question, as well. Agencies have been using sex to sell products for a long, long time; but as the sexuality has become more graphic, it appears that it becomes less effective at selling products. In fact, in a recent study released by the American Psychological Association, subjects found it more difficult to remember commercials placed during violent or sexually explicit programs. Not a good deal for the advertisers, who have often paid a premium to advertise during such programming!

Read more about the study:
Televised Sex Impairs Memory For TV Ads

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