The 18-49 Bad Habit
On December 31, 2013, the last of the Baby Boomers will turn 50 years old, and the most significant generational cohort in history will graduate from the 18-49 TV ratings category: the demographic group usually referred to by television journalists as “highly prized” or “most coveted.
With the Boomers moving into a new demographic, isn’t it time for reporters to stop fixating on 18- to 49-year-olds? This seems an anachronistic legacy from the days of disco dancing, Earth Shoes and three TV networks -- days when young adults moved away from home after college and started families, while senior citizens struggled to get by.
When I worked at Nielsen, the story I heard -- perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not -- was that in the mid-70s a less popular network decided to make lemonade out of lemons by arguing that while it had fewer overall viewers, it had more of the younger viewers that advertisers really wanted. Presto! The birth of the coveted and highly prized 18-49 demographic.
Seeing the success of the entertainment networks with this feat of media manipulation, news organizations argued that since their viewers were older, the real demographic for them was 25-54. So now we have a situation where a 51-year-old who watches the nightly news is highly sought after, while the same viewer who watches a sitcom is supposedly worthless.
Today’s TV press are so habituated to reporting age-related ratings for their stories that they no longer even ask whether it makes sense. Look at the reporting on the Republican debates. The reported rating is for 25- to 54-year-olds, even though the rating for viewers age 55 and older is four times larger than it is for 25-54. In other words, the media are consistently missing the most important piece about the debates’ viewership: that the debate audience is primarily senior citizens, the ones who are most likely to vote.
The usual explanation that reporters give for citing the 18-49 rating is that this is the group advertisers really want to target. I have argued previously that even if this is true, the crucial rating is not the “live same day” number, which includes DVR playback on the day the show is aired, but the “C3” rating, which measures the number of viewers who have seen the show’s commercials after three days of DVR playback.
But is it really true that advertisers only target 18-49 year-olds? I find it hard to believe, especially since consumers in their 50s and 60s have far more disposable income than those in their teens and 20s. The argument against advertising to anyone over age 49 is that while they may have more money, their buying patterns and brand preferences are set early in life, so there is no point trying to get them interested in anything other than adult diapers and denture cream once they get into their 50s.
This conventional wisdom seems particularly outdated now that the Baby Boomers, a generation always open to new experiences, have moved into their 50s and 60s. Nielsen and other researchers have found that Boomers’ brand loyalty is no more unchangeable than other age groups. I know this from personal experience: just a few weeks ago I, a Boomer, switched brands of toothpaste, and I routinely buy different brands of shaving cream, breakfast cereal and gasoline depending on price, convenience and whim (although I have to admit I have been fiercely loyal to my cola brand since I was a preteen.)
But never mind brand loyalty; many of the products sold today didn’t even exist when Boomers were in that impressionable 18- to 34-year age range, so there’s plenty of opportunities to get their loyalty now. Do TV viewers over age 50 not buy laptops, cell phones, tablets, software, printers, copiers, digital cameras, flat screen TVs? If ad buyers for these products are discounting older viewers, they should be fired. It’s not as if we are immune to advertising; I definitely switched my browser from Explorer to Chrome based solely on the great Google campaign.
The other knock on older viewers is that there are too many of them -- that they are not as valuable because they watch too much TV and are “too easy” to reach. This seems to stand supply and demand on its head, though. If it’s cheaper and easier to reach viewers who spend a lot of money, why would you pay a premium to reach harder-to-reach viewers with less disposable income? And if you are specifically targeting a particular demographic (for example, men 18-34), then why not just focus on networks that specialize in those audiences anyway, like Comedy Central and Spike?
But regardless of agency buying strategies, reporters who cover TV do not need to take their lead and continue an outdated convention. Nielsen has age breaks well above 18-49, and if journalists absolutely insist on reporting a key buying demographic, it seems to me that 25-65 is better. Or if age is so important, simply report the total number of viewers and the median age of the audience.
Better still to skip demographics altogether and stick to total viewers, unless there’s a compelling reason to do otherwise. As consumers of all ages become more sophisticated, it is increasingly difficult for reporters to understand the true business implications of overnight ratings. Time to break the 18-49 habit and come up with a new model that doesn’t marginalize the largest consumer audiences.