NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- While advertisers get ready to plunk down billions on prime-time broadcast TV during this upfront -- and make no mistake, they will -- consider this statistic: The median age of viewers of regular prime-time fare is nearing 51 (Fox, the youngest, is 44). That's two years past the age widely considered to be the point of no return for the most-coveted advertiser demographic. All of which leads to a burning question: Why are advertisers expected to rush to pick up some $9 billion in inventory in a medium that seems to be passing by younger viewers?
In a word, reach. No other media outlet is able to put a 30-second commercial in front of the "most" of any demographic an advertiser wants in one fell swoop. Sure, there may be fewer of those valuable consumers between the ages of 18 and 49 watching -- and fewer still, perhaps, of consumers between 12 and 24 -- but there are still more of them watching "American Idol," "30 Rock" or "Grey's Anatomy" than in most other places.
"Programs that are on broadcast -- taken singly -- still deliver the highest immediate individual reach than anything on cable. They have the highest profile and deliver more viewers in one space than other video content can provide," said Don Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at MPG.
Translation: Older masses are better than none at all. "Reaching a broad audience is still important for advertisers of a wide variety of products, including cars, electronics, household products, restaurants and others," said Jeff McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University. "The need for these products reaches across wide demos and broadcast television still brings those. And the older demos likely have a few more bucks to actually spend."
That's not to say that broadcast TV couldn't continue to "age out" of the viewer base. In 2005, the median age of a live-plus-same-day viewer of regular prime-time programming on broadcast TV was just under 47, according to Nielsen data compiled by Brad Adgate, senior VP-research at Horizon Media. These days, the median age is nearly 51. Even the CW, which aims to reach women between 18 and 34, has a median age of about 33 -- just under the age limit, as it were.
Will things change?
Over time, the trend could spark change. "At some point, perhaps [the median age] will reach a tipping point where [advertisers] say, 'Hey this show is too old for us. This show is not delivering our target ,'" said Mr. Adgate.
But we're not there yet. In fact, many analysts and TV ad-sales executives are licking their chops over the prospect of ad money coming back into the "upfront" market. Yet, there's a sense the rebound the TV networks are likely to enjoy this year could distract from issues bound to chip away at their well-being over the longer term.
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But for the immediate moment, the TV networks remain focused on that part of their business that continues to generate the most revenue: TV shows that air at a specific time and date. Why? Because research continues to demonstrate that video consumers still get most of their fix by watching TV.
A $3.5 million study conducted by the Nielsen-backed Council for Research Excellence in 2009 found that younger baby-boomers (between the ages of 45 and 54) consume the most video media, taking in an average of just over nine-and-a-half hours each day. Of that time, 336 minutes per day -- more than five-and-a-half hours -- was devoted to live TV. The young boomers also used the web an average of 46 minutes daily, DVR playback for 17 minutes, and e-mail for 51 minutes.
Meanwhile, consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 take in an average of eight-and-a-half hours of media overall, with 210 minutes -- about three-and-a-half hours -- devoted to live TV each day. The youngest consumers devote an average of 67 minutes daily to the web, 34 minutes to DVR playback and 20 minutes to e-mail.
"There's no denying that our industry is in a period of change, but things aren't moving as rapidly as some would have you believe," said Jon Nesvig, president of sales for Fox Broadcasting Co. Citing Nielsen research, he noted that "over 98% of video consumption still comes via the TV set" among consumers between the age of 18 to 49, with just 1.7% coming from online or mobile video.
But even while live TV remains dominant among younger consumers, emerging forms of communication are siphoning off some of its time. With that in mind, the networks will have to manage their future appropriately. For example, the CW offered to sell "converged" ad packages that include ad time on shows that aired on TV and also that streamed online. And it vowed to work hard at reaching "Generation D" (the D stands for "digital").
In the future, Mr. Adgate said, advertisers may strike deals depending on the technology consumers use to watch their favorite show, crafting one pact to reach young viewers of "30 Rock" online and another to reach an older demographic watching "Grey's Anatomy" in the time-honored manner.
But until then, they'll continue to pour billions into the TV upfront.
Ad Age picks the best and worst for fall
"Lone Star" (Fox): A drama that appeals to lots of women as well as men? That's the hope for this Texas-oil drama.
"Nikita" (CW): CW executives believe "Nikita" will attract the young viewers, but could also help reel in older fans.
HOW'D WE DO LAST YEAR? All three of Ad Age's picks -- Fox's "Glee," ABC's "Modern Family" and CBS's "NCIS: Los Angeles" -- were bona-fide hits and are returning for a second season.
HOW'D WE DO LAST YEAR? Two of Ad Age's picks -- Fox's"Brothers" and ABC's "The Forgotten" -- were indeed canceled, while our third choice, NBC's "100 Questions," has yet to show up on air.