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The last hope of television networks: the baby boomers

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Next week, as the network’s fall television season gets underway, ABC will begin airing “The Golden Bachelor,” a spinoff of “The Bachelor” that focuses on an offbeat twist: The lead contestant is a man of 72 years old, and the 22 women vying for his affection are aged 60 to 75.

On Sunday evening, the channel will devote three hours to “The Wonderful World of Disney,” a television tradition that dates back to the 1950s. On Tuesday, there is “Dancing with the Stars.” On Wednesdays, there will be special primetime episodes of decades-old pending films like “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”

It’s no secret that network TV audiences have plummeted in recent years as viewers have fled prime-time queues in favor of on-the-go streaming channels like Netflix and Hulu .

But there is one notable exception, a segment of the audience that has effectively become the core of broadcast networks: people over 60.

The median age of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox viewers has exploded in recent years. This has forced executives to look for ways to recognize and nurture an audience that still watches TV reliably and watches it in prime time, the old-fashioned way.

“The baby boomers are keeping it afloat,” Kevin Reilly, a programming veteran who held senior positions at Fox and NBC, said of network television. The generation, he said, “grew up organizing their worldview around this: the television was the center of the living room and we watched the day and date.”

This is a critical time for networks. They are nothing more than the hit factories and reliable cultural forces of yesteryear.

Strikes by Hollywood writers and actors have only made the situation worse. The strikes paralyzed production for months, forcing networks to schedule piecemeal programming of reality series, sports, game shows and reruns for the next few months.

Entertainment executives privately worry about a collapse in audiences — not to mention a further migration to streaming — without the vital help of new original scripted programming.

Just nine years ago, the median age of most of the networks’ top-rated entertainment shows ranged from the mid-40s to the early 50s: it was 45 for the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” and 52 years for “The Big Bang Theory,” according to Nielsen. Some shows, like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” had a median viewer as young as 39 years old.

But in the last network television season, which ended in May, the median viewer was over 60 for most entertainment shows, including “The Voice” (64.8), “The Masked Singer” (60.6), “Grey’s Anatomy” (64.1). ) and “Young Sheldon” (“65+”, the highest range offered by Nielsen).

Local TV stations have seen similar trends.

“There is a pretty clear generational divide when it comes to local programming viewing at age 45,” according to a recent report from TVREV, a research group. “Generation X and baby boomers (those 45 and older) still cling to the TV habits they developed as children, while their children largely reject local linear broadcasting.”

Executives said in interviews that the median age of many of these series was younger when their viewership was measured on network-affiliated streaming services like Hulu, Peacock and Paramount+. Some shows have median ages 20 or 25 years younger than those on the air, they said. The ABC hit “Abbott Elementary,” which has a median viewer age of 60.5 at broadcast, is also popular with younger viewers when it airs on Hulu.

Some executives also point out that younger viewers are not adequately measured by existing audience tools.

“Anyone we don’t capture on a linear device, we capture on streaming,” said Radha Subramanyam, director of research for CBS.

Still, she added, “At CBS, we love older viewers. They watch a lot of television. And advertisers love them because they have tremendous buying power.

Despite this, advertisers still value TV audiences under 50. David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery said this month that up to 75 percent of its cable networks’ audience was over 54 and, as a result, the company was not earning as much as it could from advertisement.

Dick Wolf, a leading purveyor of procedurals, one of television’s classic genres, is heavily featured in regular CBS programming (“FBI,” “FBI: Most Wanted,” “FBI: International”) as well than in that of NBC (“Law & Order: SVU”, “Chicago Med”, “Chicago Fire”, “Chicago PD”). Last year, NBC revived the original “Law & Order,” starring 82-year-old Sam Waterston.

Other scripted series also hail from an earlier era, including NBC’s “Quantum Leap” and “Magnum, P.I.” — which, unlike most of the network’s competitors, will have new episodes this season because they were taped before the strikes. CBS is resurrecting “Matlock,” a show that “The Simpsons” used to lampoon for its older fans. (The new version of “Matlock” will star Kathy Bates and appear after “60 Minutes,” sometime after the strikes are resolved.)

Last year, NBC had a surprise hit with “Night Court,” the sitcom that launched nearly four decades ago. (“Night Court” and “Quantum Leap” first appeared on the same night on NBC’s schedule in 1989.) A producer of “Night Court” said this year that the new show’s courtroom no It wasn’t filled with tons of computer screens or the modern trappings of life – we really intentionally wanted “Night Court” to feel like a place that was a little bit frozen in time.

At ABC, executives decided to move “The Golden Bachelor” to 8 p.m. on Thursdays, even though the network had originally scheduled it for Mondays at 10 p.m. One reason: widespread enthusiasm for the show as well as a strong introduction of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”

“We have a leading affiliate whose median age is about 67 or 68, which is right in the middle of the traditional definition of what a baby boomer is,” said Ari Goldman, vice president senior content strategy. and programming at ABC Entertainment. “We’re going to build on this abundance of audience that we have in prime time.”

And of course, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” will have their own night to shine, with special primetime celebrity editions on Wednesdays.

“These are shows that have been staples with older audiences for four or five decades – I think ‘Jeopardy!’ is even going to hit 60 in some form this coming year,” Mr. Goldman said. “These are shows that our audience grew up with, and they are heartwarming programs and somewhat of a throwback for that audience.”

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nytimes

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