News Shows Skew Gray

Aug 11, 2003  •  Post A Comment

It may not be something news organizations and cable news networks want to brag about, but a significant portion of their overall audience is over 65.
The audience nobody wants to talk about, measure or sell is especially prominent when it comes to the growing sector of cable news channels. Though only 12 percent of the total population is 65-plus, those in that age group are heavy users of TV. They can account for three to four times as much of the audience as the younger demos for many of the most popular cable news programs. Cable news has inspired a vociferous, brutal and unrelenting war over bragging rights over the past year and a half.
To be sure, it can be a bit jolting to look at almost any breakout of 65-plus audience composition simply because most data dispensed by the networks only talks about 18 to 49 and 18 to 34 viewers. They rarely break out viewers older than 25 to 54 (a demo most often referenced in regard to news).
By dealing in median ages and numbers, no one has to address the size of the older audience. “I’ve never heard the 65-plus audience discussed in any conversation I’ve ever had with any cable network or broadcast network, because it’s certainly not as desirable an audience as under-65,” said Steve Sternberg, senior VP and director of audience analysis for Magna Global USA.
“They might talk about 35 to 64 … but they’re not going to focus on 65-plus,” said Mr. Sternberg.
In July, the 65-plus demo represented an average 2.8 percent of the total prime-time audience for the seven broadcast networks. For the month, 5.9 percent of the prime-time audience on CBS, the network that has long lobbied against the fixation on the 18 to 49 demo and was No. 1 last season in total viewers, was 65 or older. On NBC, which won the season in the 18 to 49 demo, 4.3 percent of the prime-time audience in July was 65-plus. Meanwhile, the 65-plus demo represented 2.9 percent of the prime-time audience on ABC, 2.1 percent on Fox, 0.8 percent on Pax, and 0.7 percent on UPN and the WB.
News programming skews older than entertainment. To list a few broadcast examples: 25 percent of ABC’s “Nightline” audience was 65-plus. Twenty-two percent of NBC’s “Today” audience from Jan 1 through July 27 was 65-plus. Forty-one percent of CBS’s “60 Minutes” audience during the 2002-03 season was 65-plus.
In cable news, “60 Minutes” would rank as middle-aged compared with the programs on the Big 3 cable news networks between the high-profile, high-stakes hours of 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.
On Fox News Channel, whose advertisers ponied up a reported $150 million during this summer’s upfront frenzy, 43.1 percent of the prime-time audience in July was 65-plus. Indeed, the dominant demo in each of the evening hours for the most-watched cable network was the 65-plus category, which ranged from a high of 49 percent of the audience for cable news king “The O’Reilly Factor” to as low as 38 percent for “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren.”
On CNN, which is sold in combination with sister channel CNN Headline News, the upfront brought in a reported $200 million-plus. Among viewers watching in the evening, 45.5 percent of the audience in July was 65-plus. Again, the 65-plus demo dominated throughout the evening, ranging from a high of 55 percent for CNN’s most-watched show, “Larry King Live,” to a three-network low of 36 percent for “Live From the Headlines With Anderson Cooper.”
The median age for Paula Zahn’s hour of “Live From the Headlines” remained flat year to year, while the other three CNN shows lowered their median age.
On MSNBC, which toted up a reported $70 million in the upfront, only 39.7 percent of the prime-time audience in July was 65-plus. The veteran “Hardball With Chris Matthews” was the only one of MSNBC’s prime-time shows in which the 65-plus demo was the largest demo (38 percent). Throughout the rest of the evening, the dominant demo on MSNBC was 25 to 54, the target demo for news ad sales.
So for MSNBC, the good news is that it continues to skew young even as it continues to finish a distant third in total viewers. “I think part of the reason they are third-ranked is because they don’t have as many older viewers,” said Mr. Sternberg. “If they want to be second or first, they need to get more older viewers, but they’re never going to focus on that.”
Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting System, who noted that CNN Headline News is younger even than MSNBC, said that that many programmers and advertisers underappreciate the 65-plus viewer because “they are generally easier to reach. “They have money to spend and they do spend money,” he said. “When you buy news networks, you are buying upscale viewers.”
From the advertisers’ perspective, said Andy Donchin, VP and director of National Broadcast for Carat USA, the 65-plus audience can be seen as a bonus, since the delivery guarantees and rates were based on the younger demos. From a personal perspective, he said he’s “kind of disappointed” that with all that is going on in the world, the median ages for cable news audience is not going down. “I was hoping it would,” he said.