What Happened in 1986 That May Have Ruined TV?

Oct 25, 2013  •  Post A Comment

The ripple effect from something that took place in the late 1980s is still being felt by the television industry, writes Scott Collins in the Los Angeles Times’ Show Tracker.

Collins says a question TV viewers frequently ask is, “Why does the TV business hate people over 50?" It’s a good question, he adds.

“The TV industry, like much of corporate America, chases youth. That pursuit has a major impact on programming. It helps explain why a low-rated show such as NBC’s ‘Community’ can keep going (and going, and going …) while older-skewing shows are usually toast,” Collins writes.

That explains why “Harry’s Law,” which starred 60-something Kathy Bates, isn’t on the air any longer.

The shift happened in the late 1980s, when Nielsen started using “people meters,” which allowed for demographic information such as age and gender.

“The effect on TV programming was dramatic," Collins writes. "In 1986, right before people meters were introduced, the No. 1 series on TV was ‘The Cosby Show’ — the very definition of a family-friendly, mass-appeal sitcom. Ten years later, though, families had been virtually banished from TV. The top comedies were all about single young adults seeking sex and romance: ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Friends,’ ‘Suddenly Susan.’”

But change may be afoot, Collins notes. While the total audience for broadcasters is up, those viewers are older and grayer.

“Young people have already checked out, cut the cord, retreated to Netflix, logged on to Instagram. That’s left their parents and grandparents watching the flat screen in the living room,” Collins writes.


  1. Nice to finally know why there are such chitty shows on nowadays!

  2. The introduction of people meters is HALF the story of how TV changed in the 1980s. The other half was the relaxation (and eventual elimination) of the financial Interest & Syndication rules (Fin-Syn) that limited the network’s ability to own the shows their aired on their channel.
    Suddenly, deals were not based on what was the best show, but would studios part with some of their ownership rights in order to get on the air.
    The OTHER other half, of course, was media consolidation, but that wouldn’t hit home for another decade or so.

  3. At this point it no longer matters. The TV business abandoned older viewers for younger, more exciting viewers. Well now that younger viewers have jumped ship, TV comes slinking back trying to get back on the good side of older viewers. Well guess what? We’re not falling for it. TV had its chance and they blew it. Now, what’s on Netflix tonight?

  4. Ironically, most of the big baby generation (born between 1946-1965)are older than the 18-49 demographic that the networks are trying to program to. Only boomers born in 1964 and 1965 are still in the 18-49 demographic (for another two years anyway).
    The networks audience measurement standards are out-of-date, and do not reflect the aging population. People older than 50 spend money also, and sometimes have a lot more money to spend, than the 18-49 demographic that the networks seem to worship.

  5. Agencies put more importance in brand loyalty, which can be had from a younger person. Older consumers have purchasing power but, how many appliances will someone 50 plus purchase? Now asking someone older to make a purchase for someone younger? THAT can be VERY effective! Right Grandma? That first born Grandchild sure needs a great deal of toys! Mom and Dad are broke paying the mortgage – but, Grandpa just bought a new Buick!

  6. The article implies that Nielsen did not report on gender or age before the introduction of the PM, which is not true.

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