Is Television Advertising For Old People?

On a recent flight to New York I had a chance to catch up on my reading, and a statistic in one magazine's cover story hit me like a load of bricks: The median age of prime-time television viewers is nearing 51 years old.

I had to read it three times. 51 the median? This means that more than half of all prime-time viewers are outside of the golden demographic of 18-49. The medium that has long been synonymous with massive reach is quickly becoming the most efficient way to reach lots of old people!

Surprisingly, this shift has not been gradual -- it's been most pronounced over the past five years. In fact, the median age of prime-time viewers has increased by a year every year since 2005. This means that the rate at which young people are turning away from TV is greater than the rate at which old people are dying. Think about that one for just a second.

So what does this mean for traditional content owners?

First, it means they are losing. They are losing their audience, which will ultimately translate into losing their revenue and relevance. If they do not commit to developing a meaningful audience off television, they will begin to lose their market capitalization.

Second, it means that Google and Apple are winning. Companies that own video consumption platforms that don't involve TV -- YouTube, iPhone, iPad, etc. -- are going to continue to take share from the networks that primarily reach older people. Young people are not watching less video, they are just watching less television. This nuance is more than important, it is the future of media.

Third, it means technology is king. Content ownership may be competitive advantage, but it is a bad business model. That sound of static white noise on a broadcast channel has been replaced by the silent, but absolute and inevitable, destruction of the traditional media business and profit model. Cisco predicts that by 2013 90% of all Web traffic will be generated by video, and it is unlikely that broadcasters will ever make more money from their content than they did in the peak year of 2008.

So, in light of all this, what's an advertiser to do? The audience has moved online, so it's time for the budgets to follow. Advertisers can no longer use lack of standards, measurement or cost of media execution as pretext for avoiding online advertising. The world has changed and, unless they want to advertise body spray to seniors, it is time for advertisers to do the same.

20 comments about "Is Television Advertising For Old People?".
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  1. Walter Hammock from Showcase Enterprises, June 21, 2010 at 2:32 p.m.

    Are you saying this is the median age for ALL TV or just broadcast? I have a very difficult time buying that for Cable. Too much programming aimed at a far younger demo. South Park viewers median age 51? I don't think so. Sponge Bob? Jersey Shore? Go back and re-read your article I'd really like to know if that figure was for broadcast or Cable.
    Another question you might ask is how do 600 LPM meters in Houston, Texas give you the best estimate of what five and half million are watching? Your premise is flawed because it is based on flawed data from a flawed system. Let's use set top boxes to gather data and get real time, REAL data,

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 21, 2010 at 2:37 p.m.

    1. 51 IS NOT OLD. IT'S WHERE THE MOST MONEY IS. Body sprays are very much sold to people over 50. So are jeans, iPads, sports equipment, cars, entertainment.......who not only buy for themselves but are decision makers/keepers of the purse for the kiddy set (0-26). 2. That is television screens, not programs. Video = programming, not just snippets. 3. There cannot be a large increase of gaming, especially after school/work/over scheduling, and not be a decrease of the large screen TV program viewing.

  3. Gary Klein from GKlein&associates, June 21, 2010 at 2:38 p.m.

    Amazing statistic!! However, I believe that the solution is more complex than budgets following the consumer, even though it is one of the components of the solution.
    The issue is not only how do you follow the lost demo but what type of communication is going to have meaning and relavancy to the demo. When you find them, the traditional ad will no longer work. There are many models that are now being developed and tested..........I'm sure that several will prove to be fruitful. It's going to be fun to see the changes.

  4. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report, June 21, 2010 at 2:38 p.m.

    I think the article you read may have quoted one of my studies, since I'm the one who first started writing about median age and got Nielsen to start measuring it. I report on the subject once or twice a year.

    While it's true that the average median age for the broadcast networks is 51, it's actually 41 if you look at the time-shifted audience. Additionally, there are moire than 50 cable networks with median ages under 50 and more than 20 with median ages under 40 in primetime. So younger viewers have not left television to go online. They've just shifted from broadcast to cable.

  5. Ron Hebert from Performance Ink, June 21, 2010 at 2:59 p.m.

    Todd a couple of facts need to be known. What is the average time per day /week/month that the average person watches TV? My last information was that that number was on the rise. This alone would put a crimp into your theory that TV is being abandoned. Or maybe its just cause the 80 year olds don't ever turn off TV and it skews the results.

    Also what is the time spent on average watching video on computers as opposed to watching TV. While this is a growing number it still has a way to go before it approaches time watching TV.

    Finally with TVs becoming internet ready there will be a great deal of time watching TV that might be internet provided. How will this be counted, TV, internet or both.

    I actually think that this factor of TVs being internet ready will help good content providers as the move to internet will allow these providers access to the TV screens perhaps without having to cowtow to the cable companies etc.

    And as the population ages the 18-49 demographic might lessen in value to advertisers while the 50 up will become more important, especially as many of the younger viewers feel that all content should be free and devoid of advertising, costs to them, or royalties to the creators.

  6. Kevin Mirek, June 21, 2010 at 3:23 p.m.

    Google and Apple are Winning? Are you high? Television viewers spend 5.5 hours per day in front of the sets. Computer video users and mobile users spend 6 and 7 respective minutes per day in front of their technology. Technology is NOT king ... yes... Content still is king and will remain so. And people over 50 have 93% of the money in this country, so go sell pogo sticks on the mobile phone ... the Mercedes will continue to sell on 60" big screen TVs. You may have to wait until the 50 year olds die off (at age 90) to see your fantasy come true, but then, of course, you'll be 50+.

  7. William Hughes from Arnold Aerospace, June 21, 2010 at 3:39 p.m.

    And why are people abandoning TV? It couldn't be because of the glut of Shoddy "Reality" Programs, INFESTED with 20+ Minutes per Hour Commercials could it?

  8. Mary Spio from Next Galaxy, June 21, 2010 at 4:01 p.m.

    Great article. Yes the reference is to Broadcast TV Viewership report by Magna Global. Very eye-opening though – especially given that an average of 86% of US online audience is now engaging with video. That’s almost 9 out of 10 online users that are engaging with video. It still points ut that every company needs to have an online video strategy. If 9 out of 10 of your target customers speak a online video, you should be communicating with them in the same manner. I’m not surpised that Cisco predicts that by 2013 90% of all Web traffic will be generated by video.

  9. Les Blatt from Freelance New Media Person, June 21, 2010 at 4:49 p.m.

    I think the comments here raise some interesting points, Tod, particularly in terms of the broadcast vs. cable audiences. But the aging of network television is hardly new. Check out many of the current ads for prescription medication, incontinence aids, etc., which seem to be on the air everywhere these days. That's a trend that has been growing more pronounced over the past decade. I agree with you about the need to pay increasing attention to the online audience to reach younger viewers.

  10. Tim Kirsch from Apposite Marketing Solutions, June 21, 2010 at 4:56 p.m.

    Four of the first five comments pretty much already nailed down the "this may be accurate for broadcast TV - but not when you factor in cable" position…and c'mon folks let's face it already - more than 6 out of every 10 people watching TV today are not watching a broadcast network anymore...they are watching cable.

    The other comment by Paula Lynn then shot at the "Golden Demographic" - which began to shift some time ago now from 18-49 to 25-54...and I believe in many markets today – even 25-54 may be too "young" in many product and service categories.

    So, the only "new" point I'd like to tack on is to shoot an additional hole in the idea that "the rate at which young people are turning away from TV is greater than the rate at which old people are dying".

    I will concur that between gaming, social media and video consumption online and on smart phones - the "dominance" of television as a medium is not as strong with this generation of 18 year olds as it has been with generations past...there are other options.

    But, on your way to suggesting that TV is now purely a medium for old people with the median age of prime time viewers approaching 51 - did you stop for a minute to consider the total population and any "important" shifts that might be happening there?

    Like the fact that one third of the US population is comprised of baby boomers – and while the oldest boomers turning 60 may have stolen the headlines recently - how about the staggering number of younger "boomers" that have just turned 50 in recent years - and will still continue to do so for another four years? I have a feeling this shifting statistic has much more to do with the advancing median age of TV viewers than does any true loss of younger viewers.

    That audience may be spending - comparatively - a little less time with TV - but mostly the viewership has simply shifted…both “time” shifted and to cable.

  11. Robert Leathern from, Inc., June 21, 2010 at 6:02 p.m.

    Great insights Tod, as I mentioned a few months ago online advertising dollars though (when you exclude search) are exactly where TV is right now on a "ad dollars per time" metric basis:

    Budgets are flowing to the places where ROI is most measurable and we all have a lot more work to do to increase accountability of the media we buy and manage.

  12. Sira D. Galan, June 21, 2010 at 6:56 p.m.

    ]]]Broadcast and Cable Television reaches huge audience, and people spend significantly more time with television each day than they do with radio, newspapers, magazines, the internet, and mobile
    There are five mainstream broadcast network and over 50 cable networks.In my opinion, is all about programming content that determines the audience]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]] with median ages under 50 and more than 20 with median ]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]ages under 40 in primetime. So younger viewers have not left television to go online. They've just shifted from broadcast to cable. ]]]

  13. Tod Sacerdoti from BrightRoll, June 21, 2010 at 7:28 p.m.

    A few folks have emailed me asking for article I referred to. I believe it was stripped because it was on AdAge, so here is the direct link --

  14. Marcus Osborne from FusionBrand, June 22, 2010 at 12:35 a.m.

    Good read.

    But it's not just about moving the advertising budget online and doing the same thing online as you did in the mass economy. After all, how many 18-49 groups are there on Facebook?

  15. Cece Forrester from tbd, June 22, 2010 at 1:18 p.m.

    Boomers aren't about to abandon their interests and purchasing preferences just because the odometer has rolled over to whatever age some planners can't imagine anybody being. Unless it's because they are growing in new directions that don't fit the old-people stereotypes either. Time to be a little more imaginative and learn to use research to get beyond facile assumptions to the unexpected truths.

    When someone (even an over-50) has TiVo, there is no difference between broadcast and cable, prime and otherwise. They tend to forget that the program is coming from any place or daypart--it's just there when they want it. Is "prime time" viewing something originally broadcast in prime time, or something the DVR picked up on a 2am rerun, or neither, or both?

  16. Gregory Yankelovich from Amplified Analytics Inc, June 22, 2010 at 4:23 p.m.

    Todd, an excellent article. I cannot comment on how meaningful the quoted statistics, or how valid is the methodology used, but the subject surely got very strong reaction. The advertising ROI is not my subject of expertise, but the controversy you have steered with this article seem to indicate that it's calculations are still more of an art form than a business discipline.

  17. Edward Omeara from MediaHound, June 22, 2010 at 5:52 p.m.

    Dude, have you never heard of the Baby Boomer generation, or the fact that they're all living longer or consider that as non-working retirees they have more time to watch? C'mon you can do better than this to flog internet video, even if you don't understand statistics.

  18. Mark Burrell from Tongal, June 22, 2010 at 5:57 p.m.

    All I know is that the statistics for Nielson have been inaccurate for years and that aside from live sports, I haven't watched a TV commercial in 4 years. I do however spend close to 12 hours a day online. I KNOW i am not alone in that and haven't been able to understand why advertisers and companies don't get this. In terms of Boomers shifting habits, take a look at DVR penetration in that age group as well. Traditional TV advertising (not branded, cable, or embedded) doesn't seem like it will be sustainable.

  19. Jane Bowlin-burt from Port-A-Cool, LLC, June 23, 2010 at 2:13 p.m.

    Just a thought Tod. The "golden demographic" was called so because it contained the huge "baby boomer" group. And, since people do age, the numbers for this should be adjusted. Baby boomers are readjusting definitions for retirement and "old", as you put it. They have more expendable income than any other group (U.S.) and are, typically, active travelers, home owners, bloggers, techies, etc. But, as always, the habits of the target should be seriously considered before launching a campaign. If you want to reach wealthy home owners with lots of expendable income, I would think you would want to be where the boomers are. On the other hand, if you're selling diapers or payday loans, you may want to consider another vehicle.

  20. Leslie Laredo from The Laredo Group, July 13, 2010 at 4:54 p.m.

    It is not just TV audiences that are aging, the average age of a newspaper reader is 55 and getting older!

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