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Youth powers TV, but is that smart business?

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If you get 'em while they're young, they'll be yours for life.

That's the assumption behind much of TV advertising, a $36 billion industry (according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus) that increasingly caters to 18- to 34-year-old males. Once a Chevy guy, always a Chevy guy, this reasoning goes.

Of course, advertisers' preoccupation with pulling in these demographically desirable "eyeballs," as the industry has dubbed viewers, plays itself out nightly on TV screens across America.

Networks offer programs they hope will appeal to young men (think bathroom humor, easy sex, gratuitous violence, and "reality game" back-stabbing). That's despite the fact that males between 18 and 34 make up only 12 percent of the population.

While both men and women ages 18 to 49 make up the second most desirable market, those over 49, or the "spillovers" as they are called, are not considered worth courting because they've made up their minds, won't try new things, and don't spend as much as the young.

So prevalent is this paradigm that most network executives find they can rarely afford to worry about nobler motives, such as public service or producing critically acclaimed shows.

"This is a business," says NBC head of entertainment Jeff Zucker. "Our bottom line is affected by one thing: our performance among adults 18 to 49. That is all we sell. That is all our competitors sell."

But how much truth, really, is there to the conventional wisdom? Much less than you'd think, say those who study demographics and advertising.

A growing number of experts are suggesting that the "get 'em while they're young" premise is an outdated assumption about both the young and the old.

First, women, not men, control 85 percent of all personal and household spending, according to recent research. And the over-49 crowd in general has more disposable income than younger people.

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