Will All TV Median Ages Soon Be Over 50?

In August, 1991, when I first introduced the concept of using Nielsen data to calculate median ages for television networks, it was a vastly different media world than it is todayThere were only four broadcast networks, half as many cable networks as today, no video streaming, and the average home could only receive 33 channels.  It took a few years, particularly as new networks started emerging, for median age to start taking hold as an industry-wide measurement.

My friend and colleague Jack Wakshlag started using median age for WB during their industry presentations, and other networks and programmers soon followed suit.  It took several more years before Nielsen finally agreed to report it as a standard metric.

In my initial 1991 report, Fox’s median age was only 29, ABC’s was 37, NBC’s was 42, and CBS was the oldest at 45. There were only a dozen or so prime-time series with median ages above 50, all of them on CBS.

Ten years later, in 2000, there was still a relatively wide gap among the then six broadcast networks.  WB’s median age was under 30, UPN and FOX were in the mid-30s, ABC and NBC were in the low 40s, and CBS was in the low 50s. 



Another 10 years went by, and as younger viewers started to shift to other viewing sources, the broadcast networks aged considerably, while the gap between them narrowed.  In 2010, for the first time, ABC, CBS, and NBC all had median ages of 50 or higher, with CBS topping out at 55. FOX had aged up to 45. Only CW had an average median age under 40.

In 2015, broadcast median ages continue to rise, with CBS at 59, ABC and NBC at 54, Fox at 49, and CW at 44.  Roughly 45% of all ad-supported cable networks measured by Nielsen have median ages of 50 or higher.

Originally, median age was seen as basically a simpler replacement for looking at percent composition for numerous demographic segments.  While median age had real value 20 years ago in evaluating one network versus another, is that still true today?  

If your target audience is adults 18-49, does it matter that TruTV’s average median age is 38 and TNT’s is 50?  In a vacuum, maybe.  But when you know TNT gets more than twice as many adults 18-49, the answer is obviously no. 

Does it matter that AMC’s average median age is 42, when "Walking Dead" is 37, "Better Call Saul" is 42, "Mad Men" is 52, and "Turn" is 55?  Or that FX’s average median age is 41, when "American Horror Story" and "Louie" are 37, "Mike & Molly" is 50, and "Justified" and "The Americans" are 55?

I recently worked at ION, and one of our ongoing frustrations was that too many in the industry looked at median age as though it meant something way beyond what it actually means. It was clear that if we could only get our average median age under 50, the industry would look at us differently. 

Should it really matter, for example, that ION’s "Criminal Minds" has a median age of 53, compared to Nick-at-Nite’s "Friends" at 35 and USA’s "Modern Family" at 41?  Even if all three have pretty much the same adult 18-49 ratings and "Criminal Minds" has a significantly higher Adults 25-54 rating?  Of course it shouldn’t matter. 

Unfortunately, in our business perception often trumps reality. And 50 is still a magic number.




12 comments about "Will All TV Median Ages Soon Be Over 50?".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, April 30, 2015 at 11:05 a.m.

    If you're looking at older people whose mindset is "channels" of TV, then, yes, old people watch channels (which is why the median will never go down). But young people don't watch channels. They watch shows. They are not loyal to AMC, but to Breaking Bad or its prequel Better Call Saul. Given the short attention span of many youth, clips of shows are even more desirable to 18-34 viewers than actual shows.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 30, 2015 at 12:52 p.m.

    Douglas, I don't think it's fair to say that old people watch channels not programs---as if to say that they will sit there like couch potatoes and take in any program that their favorite channel happens to be offering. If that were true, the ratings for all of the shows on the  old folks' channels would be the same---and they aren't. In fact, there is a lot of discrimination. The trurh is that old people are available most of the time- not only in the daytime or early evenings, but even in prime time, especially at 8PM. So they watch more television, especially on the broadcast TV networks, which think they are programming for "mass" audiences but are increasingly, and unwittingly, targeting the more conservative and staid over-40 audience. With hordes of "Boomers", who are much better educated and tech-savvy than oldsters of past generations, swelling the ranks of 60+ audiences, it's a mistake to think of this segment of the public as being habit bound, channel inflexible and, by implication, not very bright.

  3. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report, April 30, 2015 at 1:10 p.m.

    I've been saying for years that people watch programs, not networks. 

  4. John Grono from GAP Research, April 30, 2015 at 8:46 p.m.

    Excellent article Steve.

    Just a question and a thought.   Do you have the correspoding median age for the population?   I've always thought that rather than reporting the absolute median it should be indexed to the population median.   A number less than 100 means 'younger' and greater than 100 means 'older'.   Also indexing to the viewing population median is also very meaningful.

    I agree that people watch programmes rather than networks, though I have seen some tendency for 'network loyalty' in news and current affairs as opposed to general entertainment - probably because "everyone broadcasts the news".


  5. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report, April 30, 2015 at 9:02 p.m.

    I believe the median age of the population is 38 or 39.  I always found it interesting that among the broadcast networks, CW's median age is closest to the population at large.

  6. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 1, 2015 at 7:05 a.m.

    @John, the median age of the U.S. population has risen to about 38years and this is a useful reference point for comparisons with similar data for individual TV shows, channels, etc. I would suggest that the median age for all viewing situations also be considered as it is, of course,  weighted by heavy usage by older folks and, consequently, is higher than the median age for the population as a whole. I don't have that number at my fingertips but it must be in the mid-high forties, depending on what source you use, what daypart, etc.

  7. John Grono from GAP Research, May 1, 2015 at 7:28 a.m.

    Thanks Steve and Ed.   If I wasn't movinh home next week I'd do the came calculations for Australia just as a point of interest.

  8. Leonard Zachary from T___n__, May 1, 2015 at 11:12 a.m.

    What will be the Median Age in 10 years??? 60??? What does the Trend tell you? Overlay this with the ever smaller audience sizes over the past two decades. As a business it says your Audience (Consumer, viewer) is dying and replacements are showing up- that is what the statistical median age trend shows. Massive Audience Fragmentation.

  9. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 1, 2015 at 11:41 a.m.

    @Leonard,once again, I point out that the major broadcast TV networks are simply one component of "linear TV's audience garnering platforms-----and not the largest, by far. Yes, it is likely that the median age of their prime time viewers will rise to 60 and probably older unless they try to do something about it on the programming front. However, basic cable, on a collective basis, dwarfs the broadcast networks in audience tonnage and offers a much more balanced menu, with numerous channels catering to younger and/or middle aged audiences, not just "oldsters". Add to that younger targeted programming in other dayparts, notably late night, and include syndication sitcom reruns, which are preferred by under 50 viewers, and a youth oriented advertiser has many options for reaching prime marketing prospects via "linear TV"----and will have them for many years to come. This does not mean that other visual media platforms---digital video, notably---should be ignored. If the targeting is right and the price is fair and the ads can actualy be seen---of course consider digital video. But no advertiser in his/her right mind is going to be stampeded into massive digital video buys just because one segment of "linear TV" is reaching an increasingly older audience. There are alternatives--many of them--in "linear"

  10. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report, May 4, 2015 at 1:17 p.m.

    And let's not forget that audience skew is not the same as audience size.  CBS, who's averge medan age is approaching 60, still attracts more 18-49 year-olds than all the general entertainment ad-supported cable networks with median ages of 35 or lower combined.

  11. Terry Heaton from Reinvent21, May 5, 2015 at 9:48 a.m.

    This isn't about programs or networks or age; it's all about advertising, and young consumers have voted through their behavior that their time is more valuable to them than any loyalty. We force viewers to give up an hour of their time in prime time to sit in front of marketing. Who honestly believes that's good business? +3 and +7 numbers are absurd, because recorded programs are played back sans commercials, and IF young people actually do watch a program in real time, they're communicating with each other during the breaks. Accountability and viewability are words anathema to mass media, and they demand we play offense instead of a playbook packed only with defensive options.

  12. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 5, 2015 at 10:51 a.m.

    These must be great times to be a "Millennial". You never watch "live TV", but if you do ( ? ) you zap every one of those pesky commercials that those idiotic advertisers keep paying big bucks for. And if not ( ? ), you tweet your little head off every time a commercial break comes on. And what about digital media, you ask? No problemo. Those doltish advertisers who keep paying and paying in their vain efforts to reach you via digital means don't seem to realize that their ads, while "served", never get to your screen. And even if they do ( ? ) the moment an ad appears you make a mad rush to the bathroom or scroll down to avoid it. I guess that the best way for an advertiser to go if he wants to sway the all-important "Millennial" market---- which accounts for 20-25% of his business----is magazines.

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