TV’s Youth Obsession Backfiring?

AP television critic David Bauder reports on a Harris Interactive study that finds the television industry’s catering to the under-40 crowd is not paying off.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they believe that most TV programming and advertising is targeted toward people under 40, the survey said. More than 80 percent of adults over 40 say they have a hard time finding TV shows that reflect their lives. A significant number of baby boomers — 37 percent — say they aren’t happy with what’s on television, according to the study.


The theory among advertisers is that it’s important to reach young people as their preferences are forming — get them hooked on a certain toothpaste or soda early and they’ll be hooked for life. Advertisers will pay a premium for young viewers: $335 for every thousand people in the 18-to-24 age range that a network delivers, for example. Viewers aged 55-to-64 are worth only $119 for every thousand, according to Nielsen Media Research.


The Harris Interactive study found that half of baby boomers say they tune out commercials that are clearly aimed at young people. An additional one-third said they’d go out of their way NOT to buy such a product.

This is entirely predictable. Obviously, if one targets shows and commericals to under-35s, the over-45s are going to be alienated. Given that the huge Baby Boom generation is well outside the target demographic, that means much lower ratings.

It’s not clear to me why that matter, though, if the aim is to sell things to the young. Indeed, it’s baffling to me to start with the premise that those over a certain age don’t matter and then get concerned that those over that age are unhappy.

Further, I’d argue that the conclusion is flawed:

With the continued carving of the television audience into smaller slices because of all the networks on the air, the chance for advertisers to reach particular niches increases, said Evan Shapiro, who had his own marketing firm and is now head of the Independent Film Channel. Shapiro, 37, doesn’t buy the idea that there’s nothing on TV for older viewers. “If you are a 50-year-old male or female, there is an enormous amount of television for you,” he said. “It’s just not on all the places that it used to be.”

Right. If one is still pulling down the ABC, NBC, and CBS signals via rabbit ears, then there is indeed very little appealing available. If you’ve got cable or satellite, though, there’s more programming aimed at older people than ever before.

In the old days, the three networks had to come up with shows that appealed to old and young, rich and poor, urban and rural, black and white, male and female alike to survive. There was generally one television in the household and three networks plus PBS plus an independent station or two on UHF. Everybody in the home watched the same show.

Now, there are dozens if not hundreds of channels to chose from. Those with satellite can literally watch nothing but fishing, hunting, shopping, nature, golf, Westerns, cooking, or whatever all day long. Advertisers can appeal to an incredibly targeted audience for a relatively small sum. It’s hard to see what the complaining is about.

Gone Hollywood

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    The TV exec’s obsession with youth is based on the misguided belief that portion of the demographic has the highest amount of spending capacity to support their advertisers. I don’t know if anyone caught the news item on ABC last night which said the 20 somethings have the hightest debt, so I’m not sure what they will be buying on their maxxed out credit cards. I do know, however, that my wife is getting ready to drop another $50k in remodeling on my house. I’m sure the folks at DIY and the HG Networks are benefiting from her dedicated viewing of all their home improvement shows. And I just saw that Lowe’s had a very good quarter, not in small part from all the paint and other stuff my other half has spent at their stores.

  2. Wayne says:

    Fox news came along a fill a big hole of people who wasn’t being served. Their ratings are thumbing their competitors. Some day someone in the entertainment industry will do the same thing and reap major profits because of it.

    My problem with most of today’s shows is it the real-world type of backstabbing or liberal alternate lifestyle philosophy being shove down your throat. That fine in small doses but there is only so much of it that one can take. I like going to the movies but the most of the junk they have put out there the last year isn’t worth seeing. To much liberal political agenda in most of them.

  3. just me says:

    I watch pretty much nothing on network tv channels other than the occassional sports event. Most of it is just not my taste or style.

    I do spend a lot of time watching shows on Discovery, History and similar channels.

    I think some shows have a cross generational appeal on those channels, my whole family loves to watch mythbusters.