May 22 2024
Media Coverage

TV Networks Embrace Their Aging Audience With A New Mantra: Age Doesn’t Matter

With viewers in their 60s, networks aren’t pretending to have youth appeal; they’re touting the virtues of older audiences

When executives at Warner Bros. Discovery WBD -0.44% decrease; took the stage at Madison Square Garden last week to give their annual pitch to advertisers, they boasted about who watches their cable TV channels. 

Warner, owner of TNT, TBS, CNN, Food Network and HGTV, draws a “broad audience” of “desirable and unique viewers,” said top cable networks executive Kathleen Finch. She said Warner offers advertisers “an unparalleled way to reach consumers in a trusted environment.”

One thing she didn’t dwell on: how old the TV viewers are.

For years, media executives built their pitches to advertisers around the idea that they could reach younger audiences, with viewers 18 to 49 years old drawing a big premium and those 25 to 54 offering the greatest appeal to news advertisers.

But there is a hard reality these days: Most people watching TV are older than those groups. Among cable channels, the median age for TNT and Bravo viewers is 56, for HGTV it is 66, and even the once-youthful MTV’s median-age viewer is 51, according to Nielsen data. The cable news audience is even older, with MSNBC’s median age at 70, Fox News’s at 69 and CNN’s, 67. Among broadcasters, CBS’s median age is 64 and ABC’s is 66.

Now media executives are embracing a new sell. They are focusing more on the mass-market reach of TV, and playing down the importance of age for advertisers. What really matters, they say, is whether your ad is reaching people who are likely to buy your product, whether they are 37 or 67.

“Everybody uses credit cards and buys paper towels and buys insurance and buys phone plans, so those are not age-specific things,” said Colleen Fahey Rush, chief research officer at Paramount, owner of CBS and cable channels such as MTV and Comedy Central.

The approach hasn’t stopped the overall erosion in spending on TV ads, as marketers turn to other venues—from Amazon to TikTok to Google—to reach consumers, especially younger ones.

The media companies have pitched their streaming services—NBCUniversal’s Peacock, Warner’s Max, Paramount’s Paramount+, Disney’s Disney+ and Hulu—as ways to reach younger audiences. So far, though, the influx of ad dollars into streaming hasn’t been enough to offset the decline in TV viewership, The Wall Street Journal has reported. 

The goal for media companies is to make the most of the TV audience they do have—and cushion the blow of the industry’s decline.

Recent shows such as “The Golden Bachelor,” whose star was 72-year-old Gerry Turner, reflect how networks are trying to appeal to their most loyal watchers. CBS last year premiered “NCIS Sydney,” the latest addition to a franchise that has been a sensation for two decades. Jon Stewart, 61 years old, returned to host Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in February.  

“What they’re doing is playing to the demographics of people who are still left with cable subscriptions,” said Howard Shimmel, the head of strategy for datafuelX, a company that helps publishers and advertisers execute campaigns.

Coca-Cola drinker for life

The idea of reaching specific age segments traces back decades. As Nielsen, the TV ratings specialist, started to gather data not just on how many households were watching TV, but which age groups were watching certain programs, advertisers wanted to capitalize, reducing what they saw as wasteful spending reaching viewers who weren’t their target customers. 

In the 1990s, the Fox network helped propel the idea of targeting viewers who are 18 to 49 years old. That happened to match with the audience for Fox shows such as “Married…With Children” and “In Living Color.” 

The idea was that people in younger age groups hadn’t yet cemented their loyalty to any particular brands, whether it was for laundry detergent or soda. They were persuadable. “A Coca-Cola drinker who starts between 18 to 24 will be a Coca-Cola drinker for life,” said Peter Liguori, a veteran media executive who once ran the Fox network. 

These days, Liguori is among those who say such demographic groups are an outdated way to look at TV audiences. The company he now runs, VideoAmp, helps advertisers target consumers based on their past purchase behavior or interest in certain products—say, carmakers trying to reach people in the market for a new SUV.

Fox Corp. and Wall Street Journal parent News Corp share common ownership.

Media executives say advertisers should take into account a host of social changes when assessing the value of reaching older audiences. Life expectancy is longer, and people are starting households later than they used to, meaning they might not have settled on whether they will favor, say, Dove or Pantene or Suave shampoo. Many older people also have more disposable income.

“What a day in the life of a 65-year-old looks like now versus what it looked like 20 years ago I think has changed dramatically,” said Sean Cunningham, chief executive and president of the Video Advertising Bureau, a video ad industry trade group. 

Median household net worth for adults 65 and older rose 7% between 2017 and 2023, according to a September report from Cunningham’s organization. The same report showed that 50% of adults over 65 aren’t cutting back on buying name-brand products because of economic uncertainty and inflation.

While many advertisers are focused on wooing younger consumers, they also recognize it is a mistake to ignore the older set. One executive at a large packaged-goods company said advertisers are debating whether it makes sense to target Gen Z viewers with ads or to reach 60-plus audiences, who aren’t as sensitive to price increases and have more disposable income.

Snoop Dogg’s ad pitch

The TV industry is in the midst of its biggest ad-sales event of the year. During presentations in New York last week, networks and streamers highlighted shows and movies that are on the way in the coming year. In the background, media and ad executives are hashing out deals spelling out ad-spending commitments.

NBC wooed advertisers with a star-studded event at Radio City Music Hall, with Snoop Dogg, who is commentating on the 2024 Olympics, Michael Bublé and Kelly Clarkson coming to the stage as part of the pitch.

“For decades, we have transacted on age and gender, like adults 25 to 54, as if everyone in this whole segment is the same person buying the same products at the same time,” Mark Marshall, NBCUniversal’s global advertising and partnerships chairman, told advertisers in the room. The goal, he said, should be to find “people who are in the market for your product.”

“It’s a dated way of even talking about audiences across our media landscape,” said Rita Ferro, Disney’s president of global advertising, of the 18-to-49 and 25-to-54 demographic segments.    

Disney says advertisers can hit different audiences on different platforms. If an advertiser wants to buy ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” they will reach older audiences on traditional TV and younger viewers on Disney’s Hulu, where the show also airs. “The average age of a viewer on our streaming platforms is in their 30s,” Ferro said. 

The median age of an “Abbott Elementary” viewer is 61 on ABC and 36 on streaming services, according to Nielsen data. For “The Bachelor,” the median age of a viewer is 60 on traditional TV and 32 on streaming. 

For all the talk from media executives about how the age of viewers is now irrelevant—how reaching willing buyers is all that really matters to advertisers—the ad business has been slow to modernize. A lot of ad sales are still happening the old-fashioned way, with networks promising to reach viewers in particular age groups. 

“Revolutions are hard for these large entities,” Liguori said of media companies and advertisers. “This is going to happen faster and faster.”