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Conan vs. Leno: A Sign of Our Aging Times

New America Media, News Analysis, Paul Kleyman Posted: Jan 31, 2010

Whats age got to do with the kerfuffle over Conan, Jay and Dave? New America Media senior editor Paul Kleyman explains that TVs latest non-troversy exposes entrenched ageism in the way broadcasters have charged advertisers more money to reach younger eyeballs. That practice has historically affected what Americans see or dont in entertainment and news programs. But now young viewers are scattered to the new media winds, and mainstream TV may have to start meeting aging baby boomers on their own terms.

The late-night TV non-troversy has been page-one news, yet no one seems to get what age and media ageism has got to do with it.

It's not about hair -- Conan O'Brien's carrot peak versus Jay Leno's snow cap nor David Letterman's jokes about "that thing on Donald Trump's head. It's not about 11:35 vs. 12:05 a.m., or about the Internet youth protest for poor Conan. (How can anyone feel sorry for O'Brien and his $33 million platinum parachute plus golden chutes for his staff?)

What the brouhaha does reflect is the clash of entrenched age bias in broadcasting with the explosion of new media that is shaking every corner of the old media world. The irrational stereotyping that has long kept TV news and entertainment far whiter and younger than the America one finds at the Census Bureau website seems to be cracking.

For network TV, the lucrative 18-49 audience especially young adults ages 18-34 is rapidly scattering Twitter and yon. While Conan did his job well by attracting better ratings than David Letterman among younger males (he lost some younger women, though), the overall numbers of younger viewers dwindled as the "i Generation" found new distractions online, on iPod, on The Colbert Report and on the move.

NBC remained especially mired in the 18-49 advertising approach first established when Disneyland was new and Beaver Cleavers mom was the model for branding her kids with products young boomers might buy for a lifetime.

At CBS, though, Letterman is benefiting from the fact that more than three quarters of The Beavs huge boomer generation are now beyond televisions 49-year age limit. The youngest of Americas 78 million boomers in 2010 are 46, and the oldest start going on Medicare in less than a year.

So what? For one thing aging boomers belong to a cohort thats almost twice a large as Generation X. For another and heres the kicker broadcasters charge advertisers more money per 1,000 viewers who fit into the 18-49 age group. That is correct: older audiences are literally devalued in the media marketplace-- and for no good business reason.

That practice is the equivalent of redlining, which kept ethnic families out of white neighborhoods for decades because theyd bring down the property values.

Young adults are generally presumed to be malleable, consumers who can be sold particular brands of beer or cars they will return to for years to come. True or not, at the same time NBC was crowing last fall that Conan was attracting more young eyeballs than Dave, the youth demographic was escaping network programs. Meanwhile, Conans snarky style was chasing Jay Lenos more mature audience over Letterman's at CBS.

The median age of Conan's audience in January, according to Neilsen, was 45.6, nine years younger than Nightline's 55 and 10 years younger than Letterman's 56.3.

Media executives talk with vague confidence about market segmentation, meaning what they can sell to whom. For the last two decades, though since boomers reached their 40s and started worrying about their aging parents--the advertising world throughout the media has slipped increasingly behind the times by neglecting their interests.

The ad industry has been lost in a search for the fountain of youthful dollars at the expense of traditional medias most loyal and increasingly affluent aging audiences. Broadcast television is the most visible exemplar of that, but the print media followed the chase for youth, as well.

In both TV and print, Ive had reporters tell me over the years that mainstream media editors and producers typically turn down story proposals about the aging of America because too many older eyeballs cost them ad money.

Ageism, like racism, has hidden behind false business arguments for decades with no verifiable market research behind them, but plenty running counter to the industrys youth obsession.

New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott reported last Spring ("The Older Audience Is Looking Better Than Ever," April 20, 2009): "The highest median income will be among families led by men and women ages 55 to 64."

Advertisers still consider network television an effective buy for reaching audiences in the millions. Even at the later time slots, though, Letterman's winning share, translating to around 3.3 million viewers per night versus about 2-2.5 million for Conan, was a fraction of the pajama audience for Johnny Carson.

Still, the old stereotypes persisted among advertisings Mad men: Older viewers are stuck in their ways, cant be sold on new brands, are pensioners on fixed incomes and so on. Not only are these stereotypes untrue, one would think that media marketers could count beyond their next paychecks. The number of elders in the United States will double to 70 million by 2030, and the number of ethnic elders will leap by more than 180 percent.

Modern midlifers and those who are older are in the market for travel, housing, fitness (not just prescription drugs), and even toys. Grandparents are not only the biggest market for toys according to recent industry reports, they eagerly pop for the more expensive models or, say, the higher value on those iPod gift cards.

Exactly 10 years after David Letterman's quintuple bypass surgery a period during which he trailed Leno in the ratings and six after this quintessential front-edge baby boomer fathered his son, Harry NBC program executives might do well to reconsider their disastrous disdain for the cohort most likely to pay their inflated salaries.

Conan did do some interesting things now and then, such as goofy sketches entirely in Spanish, and had good musical acts. But one of his first and most telling bits last year had him made up as a middle-aged and bald focus-group leader interviewing a group of retirees about their reactions to the kind of humor they might expect from the new host of The Tonight Show.

Too bad O'Brien and NBC executives didn't figure out that gratuitously ridiculing a loyal segment of the audience they inherited from Leno would help cost them their positions.

Do NBC's reinstatement of Leno at 11:35 p.m., and its costly loss of O'Brien constitute an admission that Jay's 50-plus audience is looking better than ever? Can Leno win back boomers and older viewers now more attuned to Letterman? Could the previously dismissed older viewers now be a make-or-break group for boosting the size of the large and lucrative broadcast audiences?

As New York Times Elliott wrote last year, if boomers "continue behaving as they did when they were the Pepsi Generation, beliefs about the upper age brackets may be rendered moot."

Maybe the market for both programming and news coverage about aging will come into fashion. Meanwhile, stay tuned. Oh, yeah, and whats on Jon Stewart at 11?

NAM Editor Paul Kleyman is also the national coordinator of Journalists Network on Generations, a group of writers who cover issues in aging.

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