Older Viewers Drive TV Ratings
“The reasonable man adapts to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.” – George Bernard Shaw
Technology is changing the television industry. Video on demand, DVR, and online streaming allow viewers to watch shows when and where they want. It also gives the audience the power to skip through commercials, which hurts broadcast networks as advertising makes up the entirety of its revenue. Even worse, the biggest users of digital devices that skip commercials are members of the most sought after demographic, 18-34 year olds. Television executives are scrambling to adjust to this new digital age and trying to find programming that will entice younger audiences to watch programming live. However, in the process of bending the knee to the younger demographic television executives are ignoring the most active, live television watching demographic, the 65 and over audience.
Life expectancy in the United States continues to rise. The CDC’s latest research puts life expectancy in the U.S. at 78.5 and the results of the latest census show that there are over 39.5 million people 65 years or older. The growth of the older population has an impact on television, as it is a demographic that watches a lot of it. According to a study released in 2010 by Magna Golda’s Steve Sternberg, the median age of live television viewing is 51 years old.
The 65 and older demographic watches television live and a lot of it too. Nielsen’s latest data reveals that adults 65 and older watch an average of 47 hours and 21 minutes of television programming per week compared to just 24 hours and 40 minutes for adults 18-34. Even better, there is about as good a chance to teach someone over 65 how to use the DVR, as there is to get Israelites and Palestinians to sit at the same dinner table. It seems that it would make sense to produce and distribute more programming marketed to the demographic that watches 52% more live television, but as is the case too often in life, common sense is thrown out the window.
Despite the growth of the oldest demographic, programmers remain interested in younger audiences because that is the group advertisers want. It goes back to the belief that advertisements are not as effective on older audiences. Ken Dychtwald, host of the PBS Documentary The Boomer Century, counters this argument. “The baby-boom generation is one that shows little compunction about changing careers, marriages, even religions. The idea that they’re going to stick to the same toothpaste for decades is just ridiculous.” People 65 and older are part of a generation built on throwing a monkey wrench into the traditional system, civil rights movement, sexual revolution, and hippies. It is not the typical older demographic that advertisers runaway from like grade school boys trying to escape girls’ nasty cuddies.
In addition to being part of a generation of change, people 65 and older have more money to spend, as well as more free time to spend it. A younger audience may be the apple of advertisers’ eye, but anyone who has to pay off college loans knows that there is not much room in the budget to purchase a brand new car. And young entrepreneurs who are earning high enough incomes to have plenty of money left over for frivolous purchases often do so with 100 hour work weeks. Investment bankers would comment on the difficulty of finding time to go shopping, but they have no time to read this article either.
Over the next month we will hear a lot about the fiscal cliff, but the television industry is heading for a cliff of its own. As the Internet continues to grow as a media presence, television must figure out what its place moving forward. Part of it will have to be blending with these new digital devices, VOD and online streaming, but television does not have to completely adapt to this new world. It can still be a bit unreasonable and stick to its more traditional roots if it chooses to better embrace its most loyal audience.
A few networks have already embraced older audiences to much success. It is no surprise that the most watched broadcast network, CBS, also has the highest median age of its audience, 56 years old. The other networks are not far behind, ABC is 52, NBC (50) and Fox, which had a median age of 34 in 2000, is now up to 46. There is no indication that the rising median age of broadcast television viewers is going to stop. CBS seems to understand this best as they most openly embrace older audiences, simply by considering them while developing their programming. However, programming is not enough, the real hurdles to jump are advertisers.
Television executives should not allow themselves to be bullied into adoring the younger demographics simply because advertisers believe them to. Research supports that these older audiences are more viable consumers than younger audiences and watch twice as much programming. If they can convince advertisers to get down with the baby boomers, then the broadcast networks can cater more to the audience that represents a dying breed, live television viewers.