Writing their way into a corner

Broadcast TV seems to be adopting newspapers’ tactic of abandoning a large affluent audience in pursuit of a less-desirable audience they’ll never catch.

In 2008 the median age of U.S. television viewers was 50. It had never before been out of the sacrosanct 18-49 demographic. It's not likely to return to that coveted 18-49 range any time soon. Although TV is still the 800-pound gorilla of media, younger audiences are gradually migrating toward second and third screens, leaving the flat-panel in the living room to Boomer-and-older folks.

For decades, the 18-49 demographic was the only age cohort most advertisers cared about. Of course some marketers focused more specifically on subsets like 18-24, not wanting to waste media dollars on geezers a quarter-century old.

Weird. Because Boomers and olders – the 38% of Americans who are now 46 and up – have 79% of America’s wealth. The boomers alone (46-64) control 41% of discretionary spending.

Conventional “wisdom” was that Boomers-and-older audiences weren’t worth pursuing because they already had everything they needed. And in any event, they weren't going to be around long enough to be worth cultivating as a market.

But The Wall Street Journal reported that 7 of the 13 cars which an average American household buys are bought after the head of household turns 50. So ignoring the 50+ consumer means missing out on just over half a household's vehicle purchases. And it's the more profitable half. Households headed by 55- to 64-year-olds spend 20% more on new cars and trucks than those headed by 25- to 34-year-olds, according to Advertising Age.

Many marketers don’t go after Boomer-and-older audiences because they think this group has already bonded with brands and aren’t inclined to switch. Very, very wrong. A TV Land study found that Boomers are the least brand-loyal adults – 26% responded that they are not at all brand-loyal. Just 21% of Gen-Xers and Millennials characterize themselves that way. Overall, the study found that people over 40 are more open to new brands and less brand-loyal than those under 40.

So TV actually delivers an audience of prime prospects with money to spend and a propensity to be persuaded to try new brands.

And TV does it without a lot of waste reaching people who don’t have the wherewithal to splurge $47 billion a year on fashions. Or fill the cabins on most cruise liners, do most of the dining at white-tablecloth restaurants, buy Harley-Davidsons or tool around town in Mercedes Benz. (Those are all brands or categories whose sales are dominated by Boomer-and-older buyers.)

You’d think that the networks would capitalize on this incredible opportunity to deliver a mass affluent market, and reinforce their strength with the 50-and-over group. But the same wisdom that made it seem like a good idea to move Jay Leno to 10 P.M. has persuaded the nets to chase after the going – or long gone – 18-24 market and do their best to drive their franchise audience away.

One way they do that is by providing content almost exclusively created by people under 40.

According to a Writers Guild of America report, “Very few writers over 40 are employed on many popular prime-time television series,” and “The unemployment rate for writers over 30 has increased since the 1980s.” Some recent confirmation of the trend: a group of producers and agents recently settled an age-discrimination class-action lawsuit for $71 million to compensate for effectively banning scriptwriters over 40 from the business. Not exactly small change. And not an amount they would have offered if the allegations of ageism weren’t true.

Writers over 40 can remember what it was like to be 20. Writers under 30 cannot imagine what it will be like to be 60. So people beyond the age of the 20- and 30-something writers of most broadcast network scripted shows are often portrayed as stereotypes who do not create empathy and identification with the valuable boomer-and-older audience.

Several years ago, in the early stages of newspapers’ death spiral, we posted an article on their looming problem and some possible ways to ameliorate it. One solution was to play to newspapers' strength, the ability to deliver the mass affluent Boomer-and-older market:

“Trying to dress up an ink-on-paper daily to appeal to kids is like putting a 70-year-old lady in a miniskirt. It doesn't make her attractive, it makes her ridiculous.

"All the ‘newspapers in classrooms’ programs and special teen sections in the world won't turn kids into newspaper readers. Newspapers simply aren't part of their media universe. So blow the kids off and concentrate on newspapers' strengths. Focus everything – columns, features, even news coverage – on the interests of newspapers' existing core audience.”

The advice applies to TV, too. There’s an audience of just over 114 million people over 40. They’re relatively affluent, susceptible to being persuaded to change brands and the most important purchasers of virtually every high-ticket category in the marketplace. Appeal to them by writing in their terms, using writers of their age.

It seems to work pretty well for Dick Wolf (producer of the "Law and Order" series), one of the few producers known for hiring 40+ writers. It could work for the entire industry.

Disclaimer: The BrainPosse principals have both written TV shows, and their 40th birthdays are diminishing dots in their rear-view mirrors. We don’t expect agents, networks or producers to put us on speed dial any time soon.