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.