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Broadcast Age Gap Narrows

Jul 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

CBS may still be attracting the oldest audience in prime time, with half its average viewership over 52 years of age during the 2002-03 season, but the gap has narrowed between CBS and ABC and NBC, its chief rivals. And NBC has surpassed ABC in the age derby, becoming the second-oldest-skewing broadcast network.
NBC’s prime-time median age is now 46.2, up from 45.9 the season before, while ABC’s, which was 46 a year ago, is now down to 43.6.
The WB remains the youngest broadcast network (at 31.1), though its median age is “inching up.” WB is followed by UPN (at 33.1). Fox Broadcasting’s median age of 35 (down from 36) happens to be the closest to that of the general population (36.5).
Those are the conclusions of a new research report on the subject of median age from Magna Global USA.
“Median age” is the age at which half a network’s or a show’s audience is younger and half is older, and it offers a simple competitive measure of the performance of networks and programs alike. Of course, most buyers target specific age groups (e.g., 18- to 49-year-olds) and consider such factors as cost per thousand and viewers per quarter-hour rather than median age.
But median age is important. It offers the “simplicity of a single number [and] can lead to more extensive analyses that would slip notice if looking at reams of data,” said Steve Sternberg, senior VP, director of audience analysis, Magna Global USA, who authored the median age report.
And veteran buyer Mike Drexler, CEO of Optimedia International (U.S.), agreed that median age “gives you a sense of how a network is tracking. … It’s a pretty good indication of where [a network’s future] programming is going.”
ABC aged dramatically two seasons ago, during its “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” addiction, when its median age shot up to 46.6, and at one point nearly one-quarter of its entire prime-time audience was over 65, according to the report. But now, with its younger-skewing “Bachelor”/“Bachelorette” franchise and comedies such as “George Lopez” and “Life With Bonnie,” the Alphabet Network is back to pre-“Millionaire” median age levels. Next season it has a “reasonably good chance of lowering its median age further,” according to Magna.
Four of ABC’s five youngest-skewing shows last season were reality series, paced by the “The Mole”/“Celebrity Mole” franchise, with a 36.2 median age (down from 42.7 the previous year), while its fifth-youngest show was the evergreen “Wonderful World of Disney,” with a 37.7 median age (up one year from the previous season). ABC’s oldest-skewing show was “Monk,” its highly touted USA Network cable import, with a 52.7 median age.
Hold the Geritol
CBS, traditionally the oldest-skewing of the networks, may have edged up marginally in the past season (to 52.2 in 2002-03 from 51.7 the season before), but a closer examination shows a positive underlying trend. CBS has “reduced the percentage of 65-plus viewers (from 31 percent five years ago to 26 percent this season) while increasing its percentage of viewers 50 to 64,” according to the report. “So while half its average audience is still over 52, the 50-plus portion of CBS’s audience has actually gotten younger.”
That means CBS has finally laid the groundwork for getting its median age below 50, but it’s likely that won’t happen as soon as next season, according to the report.
CBS’s two youngest series are its reality workhorses, “Amazing Race” and “Survivor,” with median ages of 41.4 and 42.5, respectively. Both “CSI” and its offspring, “CSI: Miami,” are also among the network’s five youngest-skewing prime-time series, at 47.8 and 48.3, respectively. The network’s two oldest series are “Becker” and “60 Minutes,” at 58.4 and 60.5, respectively. In fact, over the past five seasons the median age of “Becker’s” audience has increased more than 7.5 years, but that’s hardly a problem for all advertisers.
“Everybody wants to get their age down,” said Optimedia’s Mr. Drexler. “But there are a lot of products and services out there that have a great respect for people who are over 50, especially with the socioeconomic patterns of people over 50 today. They’re active. It’s not just the Geritol crowd anymore. The fact of the matter is they have a lot of discretionary income.”
NBC, which prides itself on its 18- to 49-year-old viewers, is actually now the second-oldest broadcast network in prime time, according to the report, with 42 percent of its average audience over 50, compared with 37 percent five years ago. The Peacock Network’s median age, in the mid-40s, may have risen a bit, but that’s unlikely to affect morale at Rockefeller Plaza or in Burbank, Calif., because the same high-end dramas (e.g., “The West Wing” and the “Law & Order” franchise) and newsmagazines (the “Dateline” franchise) that have aged the Peacock also bring it a disproportionate share of upscale viewers.
That resonates with buyers. “The more upscale you are, the more buying power you have,” Mr. Drexler said. “That pervades all categories.”
Fox, with its youngest-skewing series, “Malcolm in the Middle,” and oldest-skewing series, “America’s Most Wanted: America Fights Back,” both returning, is expected to maintain its mid-30s median age next season. The WB, though marginally older, should have no trouble retaining its bragging rights as the youngest-skewing network, according to the report. If UPN’s new Tuesday comedy block catches on, it “could get younger in the fall,” too, according to the Magna report.
Interestingly enough, the median age of the audiences for many of Fox’s shows, including its five youngest-skewing series, have gotten younger. For example, veteran “The Simpsons” has dropped to 26.9 from 29.1 in the 2001 season, and “Malcolm” dropped to 26.8 from 30.2 the year before. That signals continued favor from young-demo-minded advertisers.