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Over-50 Audience Overlooked by Entertainment Industry - 2003-04-11

Critics say the entertainment industry is ignoring an important audience segment, people aged 50 and older.

An incident a few years ago typifies the problem. A writer in her 30s claimed to be 18 years old to land a job on the television series Felicity, which was aimed at a young audience. Her bosses learned how old she was and she was promptly fired.

The Writers Guild of America complains that Hollywood writers over 40 have trouble finding work. Performers have the same problem, says John Connolly, the national president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. An actor himself, Mr. Connolly says producers have suggested more than once that he dye his graying hair. He says his union members, who include actors and newscasters, face similar problems at 40.

"And in terms of women, it starts even earlier. Faces disappear from television, voices disappear from radio, and if you take a look at the population of performers in the music industry who are creating new work and getting it marketed out there by big companies, it is overwhelmingly that of young people," he said. "Now, in some ways, that makes perfect sense. But we think that an over-reliance on marketing demographics is actually bending the stick on this problem way far over to one side, and, in fact, creates an ageism problem which excludes valuable voices from the discussion in our society."

Entertainment is about selling, says those in the industry, and what is sold is the audience. Programs with a young audience are considered valuable because, advertisers say, young people buy the products.

The audience over 49 is not considered important, says former broadcast executive Steven Sohmer. He has held senior jobs at three television networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, and was head of Columbia Pictures.

"The reason that television is so orientated toward adults 18-49 is because the advertising agencies have set that out as the criterion on which they buy," said Mr. Sohmer. "So that at a television network like ABC, the numbers that are reported every morning, which are the cash-register sales of our business, are only the 18 - 49 numbers."

In primetime television, viewers older or younger than that are considered irrelevant.

That is a big miscalculation, says Ann Reed, who serves on the executive council of the AARP in California. The group is made up of people aged 50 and older. Ms. Reed said this is the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population.

"It will be up to nearly 40 percent by 2020," she said. "Right now, we are more than one-quarter, almost one-third of the population. And to ignore that kind of, not only numbers, but their monetary influence is really self-destructive."

She said those 50 and older account for 40 percent of consumer spending in the United States.

In the luxury and leisure travel market, they account for 80 percent of all spending. And those 50-plus have more money for non-essential items than any other age group.

Media critic Neal Gabler has a theory on why Hollywood fails to recognize this. He says most people who run the networks and movie studios are in their 50s, and are part of a generation that grew up with a youth fixation.

He says they fail to recognize that viewers of all ages just want choices.

"What do people want, over-50, under-50, 18 years old? Pluralism. We want and I opt for a pluralistic culture, which has all sorts of things," said Mr. Gabler.

Some say television is moving in that direction. "I think the industry is changing," says David Klein, vice president of the Ad Age Group, which publishes industry journals such as Advertising Age. "During the past 20 years or so, appealing to younger people was the core interest," he continued. "But now advertising itself is having to change because people have so many more choices. The audience is fragmenting; mass network television is slowly dwindling."

He says, today, so-called niche networks focus on narrow interests, from science or history to news.

Former television executive Steven Sohmer says when he first came to Hollywood, there were three national networks. Now there are hundreds.

"Even in a local market, there can be 20 over-the-air channels," he explained. "And, indeed, there still can be nothing to watch, but more often than not, one can find something, in the range between food, history, baseball, every kind of sport, outdoor life, and the mainstream networks with their standard sitcoms and cop shows."

Media analyst Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, says the proliferation of networks is helping address the problem, but the major broadcast companies still set the tone.

"In the end, all those other outlets, for example, in the realm of television, are still minuscule compared to network television," said Marty Kaplan. "If you looked at something like a low-rated news program on a network, or entertainment, it still attracts more people than all the other news programs on cable put together."

Hollywood veteran Sohmer says the rise of pay-for-view television, and premium cable channels that charge a monthly fee for better programming, will lead to greater specialization and more diversity in broadcasting.

Media critic Neal Gabler complains that even cable networks that cater to older viewers are desperately trying to lower their so-called demographic, hiring telegenic hosts or creating lively graphics to draw in younger viewers.