A little over a year ago, I wrote this:

One of the more mixed explanations {for why TV shows tend to take place in “hip” locales} is the notion of targeted demographics. The notion that the young demographic is more valuable than older viewers. To be honest, I think that this is something that marketing departments convince themselves of more than anything. A justification for their own preferences. People that go into entertainment and marketing want more than anything to be hip and with it and I think are more interested than that than they are in selling their product. Even when there is no advertising, such as movies, studios released one anti-war flop after another and continue to have a bias towards Rated-R movies over Rated-G movies even though the latter typically do a lot better in theaters and have more ancillary sales such as toys and cheap straight-to-video follow-ups. I’m actually wondering if the credit card crunch might encourage advertisers to target consumers that actually have money over those whose credit cards are now being cut up.

Honestly, I used to put this in the same category as my belief that Osama Bin Laden has been dead for several years and that Peak Oil bring right around the corner is a myth (I hope I’m not as wrong about the second as I am about the first). I believe it, but in the “conspiracy theory” sense and not out of any special knowledge. People smarter than me have been saying that I am wrong and while, ordinarily I listen to such people on subjects in which I have no expertise, I just can’t get on board (ahem, until they show the body). Everyone needs to believe something considered to be kooky.

It turns out, my belief about TV ratings may not be so kooky afterall:

From then on, the 18 to 49 cohort was the “coveted” demo, and it cost a premium to buy. Eighteen to 34 was even pricier. Older Americans? “Viewers over 55 haven’t factored into ad rates,” says theWall Street Journal, “which made them without value to the networks.” The numbers tell the story: A 30-second ad on Fox’s young-skewing Glee costs $47 per thousand viewers, while a spot on CBS’sThe Good Wife, 60% of whose audience is 55-plus, costs about half that.

But now the jig is up. “Reliance on the 18 to 49 demographic,” Ad Age reports Poltrack saying, “is hazardous to all media and marketers.” It may be just a coincidence that CBS, which these days runs about even with Fox in overall prime-time viewership, is now being killed by Fox in 18 to 49. But it’s no coincidence that 80 million baby boomers are aging out of the desirable demo. To sell air time to reach the fastest-growing part of its audience, the industry needs a new metric.

For years they’ve been saying that the most desirable demographic is “young and affluent” (often citing 18-34 rather than all the way to 49). While this is true, it’s something of a limited demographic. Most young people lack disposable income. Wealth comes with age. The ability to just go out and buy stuff may be the habit of the young, but is more likely to be within the capability of the old. And then there’s the part of the theory that says advertisers should target them when they’re young so that they can build long-term brand loyalty. The problem is that product loyalties change over time. So it’s more of a theory than anything.

So I found (and find) it to be a very self-serving theory since the “desirable” demographic just happens to be the demographic that they would want to target anyway, even without financial considerations. Hollywood used to say for years that they only make smutty stuff because that’s what the audiences demand, meanwhile it was movies rated G not only having huge profit margins but also being more reliably profitable. When’s the last time a kiddie movie suffered the fate of Waterworld? And, of course, in the Bush years the studios were making one anti-war movie after another with big name actors and anemic returns. And power to them for making stuff that they believe in! But they tend to use self-serving metrics (target demographics in the case of TV, prestige/awards in the case of movies). When there is so much ambiguity, you define the rules however you want.

In the case of TV ratings, however, there was another motive:

“CBS’s ratings hold was impregnable {between 1955 and 1976}, but only if one measured the whole audience. It was the genius of Leonard Goldenson, the head of ABC, which routinely finished in third place well behind CBS and NBC, to change the rules. Unable to compete in the big sweepstakes, Goldenson created a smaller one that he could win. ABC, he told advertisers, was getting younger viewers than CBS and NBC, which meant that advertisers with products appealing to that segment would be wise to buy time on ABC. That was akin to a football team saying that it had lost the game, but it had gained more yards…. The network had managed to make itself seem successful despite its consistent third-place finishes. It was all smoke and mirrors.”

As some of you may recall or vaguely be aware, CBS was culturally dismissed at the time because a lot of its success hinged on such shows as Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction (they also did the Andy Griffith Show, but that one I think got a pass). So ABC was apparently the one that declared that the rules had changed and suddenly their ratings didn’t suck anymore.

I commented in the past that the long-struggling NBC should consider targeting shows at underutilized audiences. The networks have historically been historically uninterested in older viewers and, for that matter, boring family viewers (though economics has partially overruled them on the latter). In years past, the network had quite a bit of success with shows like the Golden Girls and its spinoff, Empty Nest. In addition to the age factor, there is a dearth in irksomely formulaic family sitcoms (TBS has more of them than CBS and NBC combined) and conservative dramas like Seventh Heaven and Touched By An Angel, not to mention Walker, Texas Ranger. Shows that the networks want to make end up spawning copycat after copycat, while other shows tend to pull in good ratings and yet never seem to make network execs say “We need to make one of those shows!” It remains a niche for NBC to fill. Including, but not limited to, previously ignored demographics.

{h/t OTB}

Category: Theater

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9 Responses to Truman 1, Nielson 0

  1. web says:

    Traditionally, the home for “older” demographics has been daytime TV or else focus networks like Lifetime, PAX, etc.

    Though there have definitely been older-targeted shows of the past too. Murder: She Wrote comes to mind as a high-rated one definitely targeted to an older clientele.

    In the larger picture, it does seem a bit much for the networks to want to win every single demographic – especially in the days where most viewers are on a cable or satellite feed and have access to at least 80, if not 100+, channels.

  2. Kevin says:

    I think the reason that G-rated movies tend to do well is that there just aren’t that many of them. If most movies were rated G, rather than R, they’d be a much riskier proposition. Also, G-rated movies don’t win Oscars.

  3. PeterW says:

    True, but we’re thinking on the margin here. Right now, the question a studio exec faces is whether to make ONE additional G-rated movie. If they were dispassionate and profit-driven, they’d make enough of each movie such that every genre has similar risk/reward profiles. If that’s not the case, that means that some other factor is at work.

  4. Mike Hunt says:

    long-struggling NBC should consider targeting shows at underutilized audiences

    I think GE-owned NBC would have been too stubborn to consider this. However, Comcast-owned NBC may be more pragmatic.

    The reason ABC did this was that they were in third place for a long long time. Ironically, once Happy Days and the like hit, they became the legit number 1 network, with no caveats…

    NBC currently has a niche for having well written comedies. One in a big city (30 Rock), one in a medium sized city (The Office), and one in Jeff Foxworthy Show land (Parks & Recreation). Sadly, while this type of sitcom is popular with critics and certain niches, those niches may not be big enough. Comcast wants its money’s worth…

  5. trumwill says:


    NBC actually does put out some pretty good stuff. Particularly in the comedy arena. They just have difficulty with comedies that people want to watch. Back when I wrote that post on NBC, CBS was cancelling comedies that were competitive with NBC’s top-rated sitcoms.

    I hadn’t really thought about it, but you’re right about NBC representing non-coastal cities in a way that I complain that the networks generally don’t. The Office in Scranton, P&R in hicksville, and Community in what looks like suburban Colorado.

    The ironic thing about my advice to NBC is that it would make me not want to watch it anymore. I loathed Walker Texas Ranger and had no use for Touched By An Angel, but I watch more of their shows than I do ABC’s. But I’m a minority, and therein lies the problem.

    Fox made its name primarily by making shows that other networks would have been embarrassed about. My how things have changed.

  6. trumwill says:

    Kevin, it’s not just that there is a relative dearth of rated G movies being made, and so the ones that do come out get a lot of attention, but I think that there’s a lot of money to be made with rated G. DVDs, toys, and so on. And they’re cheap to make. You’re probably right that they would have diminishing returns if they’d made more of them, but they’d more reliably bring in more money with another one of those than with No Country For Old Men kind of movies. But the latter does win awards, which matters to studios (for which I am glad) in a way that they wouldn’t in a more ruthlessly capitalistic environment.

  7. trumwill says:

    In the larger picture, it does seem a bit much for the networks to want to win every single demographic – especially in the days where most viewers are on a cable or satellite feed and have access to at least 80, if not 100+, channels.

    While this is true, having four networks targeting the same narrow more demographic is rather inefficient.

  8. Kirk says:

    On a side note, I find the show How I Met Your Mother to be a little too “young people in the big city” for my tastes. It’s too bad, as I find various episodes funny, but after awhile that young and hip vibe really starts to rub me raw.

  9. web says:

    The point about shows/movies targeted on the “G” rating is interesting. The death of saturday-morning cartoons were a byproduct of relaxed TV standards just as much as a desire to concentrate kids’ viewing to a limited timeblock for advertising-sales purposes. The death of saturday-morning cartoons coincided with the rise of cable/satellite TV (allowing for the “niche marketing” portion whereby cartoons moved into being the province of networks like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon) and the syndication of afternoon, “post-schoolday” cartoon runs (stuff like “The Disney Afternoon”, or the Tiny Toons/Animaniacs syndicated run).

    The fact that there are generally only a couple of “G” rated movies available in theaters at a given time is interesting. Part of the problem is that the target audience, by themselves, don’t go to movies – it requires an older chaperone to take them. For much of the “G” rated market’s movies, just sitting through one or two per month is torture enough.

    While you’re right that one studio greenlighting a couple more “G” flicks per year might be able to make a profit briefly, I suspect that it would become overblown and quickly fizzle out when other studios followed suit. Studios already spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to space out their shows – even against the intended “blockbusters” of their competitors – so as not to torpedo their own movie by running its opening week against something bigger.

    You don’t want to be the movie that winds up with a crappy opening weekend merely because you launched against the biggest movie of the year, after all.

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