- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2003

When Lifetime television aired a retrospective on the 1980s sitcom “The Golden Girls” this month, 4.2 million viewers tuned in, the largest audience in the cable network’s 19-year history.

The success of the special, designed to appeal to Lifetime’s core audience of older women, stunned some television executives. For others, it illustrated a point that even Rose Nylund, the dim-witted widow Betty White played on “Golden Girls,” could understand: Older people still watch television.

That fact — coupled with research that shows people 50 and older spend money, too — is slowly transforming television advertising, a $36 billion-a-year industry.

“Contrary to what everybody believes, younger audiences don’t watch a lot of television. Older audiences do,” said Mark Cannon, president of Audience Analytics LLC, a television research company in Provo, Utah.

The typical viewer in their 20s watches about 15 hours of television a week, half as much as the typical viewer in their 50s, according to Mr. Cannon’s research.

For years, this trend has actually worked against older viewers in terms of their programming choices, Mr. Cannon said.

Advertisers want to reach young viewers — particularly people between 18 and 34 — because they believe younger consumers are more likely to sample different brands. But since younger viewers don’t watch as much television as people 50 and older, the networks felt they could afford to cater to the younger crowd at the expense of the older one.

In other words, if a soft drink maker wants to reach viewers between 18 and 34, the advertiser can purchase airtime on NBC’s “Fear Factor” on Monday nights. But if the advertiser doesn’t catch those viewers then, NBC has provided them with plenty of other opportunities the rest of the week, whether it’s “Ed” on Wednesdays or “Friends” on Thursdays.

Lost in the shuffle have been viewers 50 and older. Even viewers born between 1946 and 1964 — the baby boom generation — have felt the squeeze.

Although far from a sea change, advertisers and television executives are slowly realizing the “flawed logic” in chasing younger viewers exclusively, according to David Poltrack, executive vice president of research for CBS.

U.S. Commerce Department statistics indicate consumers between ages 47 and 76 represent 37 percent of all spending power in the United States, while consumers between 18 and 24 represent just 5 percent of all spending power.

“Clearly you don’t want to lose sight of the older viewers,” Mr. Poltrack said.

Through much of the 1990s, CBS was the network of choice among grandparents with shows such as “60 Minutes,” “Murder, She Wrote” and “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

In recent years, the network has held onto the “60 Minutes” crowd, but it has also added “Survivor,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and other programs younger audiences enjoy.

“If all three networks are going to target younger viewers, the older people are going to go someplace else,” Mr. Poltrack said.

Many older viewers have drifted toward cable and satellite channels.

Lifetime, the network that scored big ratings with its recent “Golden Girls” retrospective, primarily targets older women. Its programming mix includes sitcom reruns and original dramas that feature women in prominent roles, plus made-for-TV movies about women who fight crime, disease and other maladies.

Nick at Nite and its sister network, TV Land, target boomers with reruns of series such as “I Love Lucy” and “Cheers.”

Good Life TV Network also targets boomers. Its schedule includes reruns of “Highway to Heaven” and “Combat,” as well as original series that focus on travel, personal finance, health care, cooking and home improvement.

The network — which is owned by Concept Communications Inc., a sister to the company that publishes The Washington Times — is most interested in attracting viewers between 38 and 55.

“I really think the sweet spot in that audience are the people 50 and older,” said Lawrence R. Meli, Good Life’s president and chief operating officer.

Other networks are aiming for viewers that are neither too old nor too young.

The Travel Channel, for example, targets viewers between 25 and 54, according to Rick Rodriguez, its executive vice president and general manager. It is especially interested in the baby boomer audience, he said.

“The sheer size of [the baby boom generation] is impossible to ignore,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

David Ernst, an executive vice president for Initiative Media, a media buying firm, said advertisers are rethinking their stereotypes about older consumers, particularly baby boomers.

Americans are living longer, and in many circles, 50 is not considered as “old” as it once was, he said.

“It’s very hard to typecast people in that population. They are just as likely to be watching a cutting-edge drama as they are a ‘Golden Girls’ reunion,” Mr. Ernst said.

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