CBS has long been derided by rivals for attracting TV viewers considered too old for most advertisers to care about. Now the Murder, She Wrote generation is having the last laugh. Consumers aged 18 to 24, many strapped with college debt and living in their parents’ basements, aren’t forming households or starting families the way their predecessors did. Meanwhile, the youngest members of the massive Baby Boom generation turn 48 this year. And luxury car, financial-services, and pharmaceutical companies—three of CBS’s largest ad categories—want to reach them. “While we enjoy winning in all the categories, 18 to 49 is not the end-all it’s made out to be,” Nina Tassler, CBS’s head of entertainment, told a gathering of TV critics in July.
Companies spent $12.7 billion on prime-time TV ads last year, according to researcher Kantar Media, and the tough economic times have them reconsidering just where that advertising should be targeted. With rights to the National Football League’s Super Bowl this season, CBS will likely lead in 18- to 49-year-old viewers for the first time in 20 years. That said, CBS, the most watched TV network overall, will generate more sales from ads targeting 25- to 54-year-olds, Tassler says.
Reaching younger consumers, assumed to be more open to new products, has been the primary preoccupation of advertisers since the 1970s. Now the relatively better-off consumers in their 50s are willing to try new products—and have more cash to buy them. “Realistically, most 18-year-olds aren’t determining what laundry detergent they’ll use,” says Pat McDonough, senior vice president of insights analysis and policy at Nielsen, which tracks audience ratings.
With an average viewer age of almost 57, CBS has the oldest audience of the four largest broadcast networks, says Nielsen. Fox is youngest, with a median age of 45, while NBC’s median is 50 and ABC’s is 52. The perception that 50 is “ancient” is changing, says Peter Gardiner, national media buyer at Deutsch, a unit of Interpublic Group, whose clients include Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson. Most have grown children, are in their peak earnings years, and are still a decade or more from retiring, he says. “It’s not that the younger demographic is less important,” says Gardiner, who notes that half his clients have begun to target 25- to 54-year-olds in recent years. “It’s that the older audience is becoming more important.”
The selective nature of the economic slump also plays a role, says David Poltrack, chief research officer for CBS. The 45- to 64-year-old age group was least affected by the recession, according to U.S. Census data. That group’s 2010 median annual income of $60,700 was 2.1 percent lower than before the crisis. Those under 25 suffered a 9.7 percent decline, to $24,140.
In the TV season that ended in May, half of the 30 shows most watched by viewers 25 to 54 aired on CBS, including the comedies The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men, according to Nielsen. CBS says four of its top five ad categories by revenue target viewers in that same age range. “This demo is the cornerstone of what luxury marketers are looking for today,” says Loren Angelo, general manager of brand marketing at carmaker Audi.
Advertisers still pay a premium for a younger audience. During the TV season ended in May, television networks charged an average of $35,000 for every 1,000 viewers aged 18 to 49 who watched a 30-second commercial during prime time, according to Nielsen. They charged an average of $30,500 for viewers aged 25 to 54. For CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, its No. 1 comedy, that translated into ad rates of $181,000 for each 30-second commercial seen by 2.28 million viewers who tuned into the show in May. For commercials targeting the show’s 2.7 million viewers aged 25 to 54, the rate fell to $154,000. Yet because CBS also has 11 of TV’s most watched shows among younger viewers—more than any other network—the company’s executives are still smiling.