When the new broadcast TV season begins shortly, the networks will again premiere new programs designed to appeal to adults from 18 to 49 years old, the audience that many advertisers covet most. The problem is that the networks' similar efforts in recent years have been largely ineffective.
Last season was the second in a row in which ABC, CBS and NBC's prime-time, live-plus -same-day viewers had a median age of 50 or above. The median age of Fox's prime-time, same-day audience, meanwhile, has increased 9.8 years over the past 10 seasons and now hovers in the mid-40s.
Outside of prime time the story does not get any rosier (or younger):
- Every regularly scheduled program in weekday daytime has a median viewer age of 50 or higher, one reason (along with audience erosion) for the cancellation of several soap operas in recent years.
- The median age of many late night comedy/variety shows -- once considered a destination for young viewers -- are also outside the 18-49 demographic. Last season the median ages for Jay Leno, David Letterman, Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Kimmel viewers were all in the 50s.
- Many of the top-rated and long-running original programs in syndication also have audiences with a median age of 50 or higher, from talk shows to game shows to court TV programs.
- The median age of many of TV's highest-profile events are also aging. Viewers' median age is now north of 50 for the Winter Olympics, the Academy Awards and the World Series, to name a few.
Why has the audience been graying despite the networks' best efforts to target younger viewers? The reasons are many and varied.
Population: The population is aging. The median age in the 2010 Census reached an all-time high of 37.2 years old. Although the overall U.S. population grew by 9.7% to 308.7 million over the past decade, the population of 30- to 44-year-olds dropped 7% to 61 million. In 2000 that age span was occupied by baby boomers; in 2010 it has been replaced by a smaller group, Generation X. The good news for networks is that a larger group -- Generation Y, also known as the millennials -- will take over this age group soon, so the population aged 30 to 44 years old will grow again in years ahead.
Diversity: The fastest-growing and youngest segment of the U.S. population continues to be Hispanics. In 2010 the Hispanic population was 50.5 million, 43% above its level 10 years earlier. Hispanics also have a median age a shade under 28. The median age for every Spanish-language network measured by Nielsen in prime time last season was under 40. Univision, the largest of these networks, was the only broadcast network to increase its ratings in 2010-11.
Cable: Besides siphoning off viewers from broadcast TV, many top-rated cable networks' programming strategies have effectively targeted viewers under the age of 50: The prime-time, same-day median age of ad-supported cable viewers was 44.8 in 2010-11. Cable draws younger crowds outside prime time too: Viewers of cable's late-night comedy and variety shows -- starring Jon Stewart, Steve Colbert, Chelsea Handler, Conan O' Brien and George Lopez -- have significantly younger median ages, although smaller numbers, than viewers of their broadcast competitors. For viewers in their 30s and younger, cable TV isn't new territory but something they grew up watching. TBS, MTV , USA, CNN, ESPN and others have all been around for at least 30 years.
Time Shifting: Viewers younger than 50 are more likely to watch programs on demand, whether they're time-shifting with DVRs or watching online. The median age for virtually every program drops when DVR playback is included. The median viewer age of NBC's comedy "Community" drops by more than six years when live-plus -seven-day audiences are compared to live-only. Online video viewing is dominated by younger viewers. A survey from GigaOM Pro last year found that the median age of the online viewer was 41. A recent cross-platform study from Nielsen found that 27% of all online video viewing is consumed by adults aged 35 to 49 years old, more than any other age group. Furthermore, Nielsen's report on the four video screens -- live TV, time-shifted TV, online video and mobile TV -- found that live TV is the biggest piece of video consumption for adults 25 to 34 and 35 to 49, at 86% and 89% respectively, but it was a smaller proportion for them than for older and younger groups.
TV Usage: There's nothing new about this, but younger viewers still watch less TV than older viewers.
But despite these significant challenges, the networks will keep skewing programming toward younger viewers. This fall will see the usual number of programs with the usual number of 20-something personalities navigating romance, the workplace and new roommates. The results will probably be the same as in previous seasons: Many younger viewers will be watching elsewhere, increasing the median age of the broadcast TV audience.