Tuesday, July 1, 2008

It's population aging, stupid!

Since the population is aging, why are we so worried if the TV audience is aging with it? That is my current headscratcher after reading a New York Times article linked by the incredible Roger Newcomb at his blog today.

It started with the recent report that median age of TV viewers had gone up to 50. This is a huge problem, because advertisers are usually only interested in viewers aged 18-49 (and they'd really prefer 18-34 or 18-39).

Now, the oft-repeated reasons for this preference for younger viewers have to do with brand preferences. Even though older viewers might have more disposable income to actually spend on advertised products, the story goes that they are "set" in their desired brands and products. Thus, to the extent that advertising shapes lifetime buyer behavior, it is the young and malleable eyeballs one wants to attract.

I know a thing or two about aging research, but I am not familiar with the basis for this assumption. I am going to assume that this is more than an old chestnut...that current research backs this up. There may also be other reasons for the preference for younger targets than I am aware of.

In the NYT article linked by Roger, the demographics of the daypart are reviewed. Among the key findings:

The NBC soap opera “Days of our Lives” has the youngest average audience (49) and the CBS game show “The Price is Right” has the oldest average audience (64).

The implication, of course, is that TV is becoming an old-person's medium. The younger viewers must be FLOCKING to other new media....internet and cell phones and videogames (oh my!). TV is not replacing its' audience. All is lost.

For me, who is often a Chicken Little, I think the story is a lot more complex and interesting and not necessarily cause for alarm. I think we can draw at least three conclusions:

1. The TV audience should be getting older, because the population is getting older! It may not just mean that younger viewers are abandoning television. Since the turn of the 20th century, and certainly since the post-WW2 era, we have had a phenomenon in the western world of population aging. Here are a couple of key quotes.

From wikipedia:

Population ageing is constituted by a shift in the distribution of a country's population towards greater ages. Thus an increase in the population's mean or median age, a decline in the fraction of the population composed of children, or a rise in the fraction of the population that is elderly are all aspects of population ageing.

Population ageing is a highly generalized process. It is most advanced in the most highly developed countries. Among the countries currently classified by the United Nations as more developed (with a population of 1.2 billion in 2005), the median age of the population rose from 29.0 in 1950 to 37.3 in 2000, and is forecast to rise to 45.5 by 2050.
Says the US Administration on Aging:

The older population--persons 65 years or older--numbered 37.9 million in 2007 (the latest year for which data is available). They represented 12.6% of the U.S. population, more than one in every eight Americans. By 2030, the number of older people is expected to increase by 88.6% over the 2007 figure to 71.5 million older persons (20% of the total population)

Indeed, the now 8-year old US 2000 decennial census said:

The median age in America reached its highest point ever at 35.3 years, up from 32.9 years in 1990, according to recently released data from Census 2000. By "median age," the Census Bureau means that half of the American people are now older and half younger than 35.3 years.

Now, admittedly, the average TV viewer is 15 years older than the average citizen. But maybe that's just because we've successfully trained our kids, in their first fifteen years of life, to play outside and ignore the boob tube? (Yeah, right!) :-). But the central fact remains, as the population ages, so too should the tv audience.

2. Much more interesting than the mean and the median is the standard deviation! What is the RANGE of ages watching different programs? This report doesn't tell us, but that seems essential for judging whether shows/dayparts/networks attract niche audiences or broad audiences. Smart advertisers, it seems to me, will want to target different messages for different audiences.

3. In knowledge is power, if you're willing to change. Let's now turn away from discounting the data. Let's accept that younger viewers are turning away from traditional television.

Younger viewers are not, however, abandoning entertainment. They are just getting it in different ways (computer, personal audio/video devices, video games, etc.). Because content for these devices can often be cleverly yoked to advertising (forced/no-fast-forward commercials, surrounding banners, ads with links), this is actually highly desirable. You can FORCE ad viewing. You can do so in a relatively uncluttered environment (not in a spate of 16 minutes of commercials every hour). You can target the ads, sometimes, to the viewers cookies or preset preferences. And you can achieve a 100% count of viewership (not like the oft-derided Neilsen ratings system).

Hallelujah. If I were an advertiser or a content programmer, I'd be investing in interactive media so heavily your head would spin. And I would be actively and aggressively trying to lure my traditional TV viewers to the new media, while doing everything I could (viral marketing, etc.) to lure new eyeballs.

With regard to the soaps, only CBS (ironically, the network with the oldest viewers) seems to be fully on this bandwagon. NBC puts Days on I-tunes, and ABC...well their strategy is still 90% TV. Big mistake...


Now, the power of the new media is beyond exciting. Take this simple comparison.

Last week, according to Toups at Soap Opera Network, the Number One soap averaged 4,851,000 viewers and the bottom-ranked soap averaged 2,288,000 viewers.

Now, in about the same period, the soap-star laden Imaginary Bitches got 1.5 Million views. So, for a fraction of the cost, promotion, etc., a good proportion of the TV audience could be had on the internet. Imagine what would happen with a little effort!

This is the future, and lovers of soaps need to encourage the networks to continue to pursue this frontier.

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