- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2002

The first generation to grow up with TV is starting to gray.
Finding a character older than 45 on a network TV show, however, can be challenging: Most programs are about people in their 30s or younger. That focus on youth is ironic for the 76 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964, many of whom were among the medium's earliest and biggest fans. The generation is gradually moving into its 50s, but TV has yet to catch up to reality.
Network TV "characters tend to be 20- to 30-somethings, young 30-somethings at that, and then it stops," said Laura Hinson, a 42-year-old public relations executive in Oklahoma City. "Sometimes there will be a token older person, a larger woman or 40-something adult, but that's not enough to grab me. I want stories that reflect my experiences. These usually don't."
The lack of boomer characters, industry analysts say, reflects advertisers' belief that viewers ages 18 to 49 are the best audience for their products. Although older consumers have more spending power, the theory is that they are less flexible in their buying choices and therefore worth fewer advertising dollars.
"Even though boomers have a lot of time and disposable income, they don't have the one thing to make them attractive to advertisers: They don't have high degrees of brand ambivalence. They've already decided what brands they want to buy," said James Twitchell, an English and advertising professor at the University of Florida.
The age of the people developing new programs is another factor.
"Producers tend to be younger," said Alex McNeil, author of "Total Television" and a boomer himself. "The best way to write is from experience. So if you're 30, it's much easier to write from the perspective of a 30-year-old than a 50-year-old."
TV always has favored good looks, and in a society where people are constantly looking for new ways to look younger, there is hesitance to put too many wrinkles, gray hairs or aging bodies on the air.
Shows with themes aimed at younger viewers result. Although older characters might be part of the cast, they are rarely in a starring or otherwise idealized role. A 50-something character is much more likely to be part of a multigenerational cast.
"The older characters are there, but they're not the main focus of the show," said Bud Carey, an associate professor at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications and former general manager of WCBS-TV in New York.
"Take 'ER' or 'The West Wing.' Who do you identify with, who's the focus on? The focus isn't really on the old sage doctor who's seen it all. It's on the young doctor. It's a soap opera."
Older characters also are portrayed differently than they were decades ago, when shows like "Father Knows Best" equated age with wisdom and respect. Today's programs are more likely to question the actions and competence of older characters, particularly TV parents.
The older characters on Fox's "Boston Public" battle weight gain, mental illness and loneliness in not-so-dignified ways, and they definitely don't always know better than the younger characters.
"If boomers were driving the entertainment business, you'd probably see 50-year-olds portrayed in a softer, more comfier light," Mr. Twitchell said.
Even programs that showcase older talent include younger cast members for plot lines to draw in the 18 to 49 demographic. CBS' new drama "First Monday" stars veteran actors James Garner and Joe Mantegna as U.S. Supreme Court justices, but it also has several younger actors who portray court clerks.
"Because most shows with political themes tend to have older audiences, my guess is that most of our audience will be 35-plus," said CBS spokesman Chris Ender. "But we think those law clerks also provide someone for the younger audience to connect with."
Although boomers say the bias toward younger viewers makes them less likely to watch network TV, they tend to be relatively understanding particularly because other options are out there.
Cable TV features programming targeted to specific demographic groups, including viewers in their 40s and 50s. HBO programming explores sexuality and violence in ways that network TV cannot.
Lifetime attracts female viewers with shows that explore family and health, among other topics, and TV Land capitalizes on boomer nostalgia with programming that includes old favorites such as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Love Boat."


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