CBS Rediscovers Fogey-Power

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

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Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Advertisers aren’t interested in old people. Yes, I know, you had some fascinating experiences at Woodstock, but advertisers don’t care. You’re probably on a fixed income and unwilling to spend vast sums on weight-loss products and watery beer simply because the manufacturer has strenuously implied that these things will lead to improbable romantic conquests of wildly attractive people. Young people are gullible, and they’re not worried about this year’s cost-of-living adjustment to Social Security.

Plus, old people watch an enormous amount of television, which is why practically all the ads on daytime cable are for arthritis treatments, better mattresses or reverse mortgages. So it doesn’t really matter what you put on television; the oldsters will watch it. Hits come from wooing the younger generation, too.

Or so went the conventional wisdom for a long time. So why is CBS Corp. Chief Executive Officer Les Moonves dumping all over the young, the crucial demographic, the holy grail of the advertisers who support his business? They’re “highly overrated,” Moonves told a gathering of television critics this week.

Two reasons: the economy and demographics. Young people are a shrinking percentage of the population, and thus represent a shrinking percentage of the nation’s disposable income. And right now, a lot of them are living at home and working intermittently, leaving them less money for watery beer and weight-loss products. Come to think of it, they probably also have less need for the weight-loss products if they’ve knocked off the watery beer.

This has some interesting cultural implications. A few weeks ago, when I complained about the lack of movies for anyone who isn't a 14-year-old boy, a lot of people told me that I should be watching television. And I am! Because the husband is a movie critic, we have premium cable, and I follow loads of shows, from "Breaking Bad" to "Game of Thrones." I agree that we’re in a television renaissance. But for my demographic, it’s mostly a cable renaissance -- I haven’t followed a network show closely since "Lost." And frankly, I kind of regret the years I invested in that dysfunctional relationship. But if advertisers spend less time chasing 18-year-olds, maybe there will be more on the networks that I want to watch.

At the very least, there might be an interesting shift in the way that television presents people -- no more 28-year-old women playing senior vice presidents, or Judith Light playing the mother of a man who is only three years younger. Young demographics like to be represented as unrealistically powerful, and aren’t so attentive to the differences between, say, 50 and 70. Older people will care very much.

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