Network TV's New Look: Cable TV

Desperate to grab the vanishing youth audience, the Big Four will heap on the sex, violence, and rock stars

By Ron Grover

Guess who's going to be sitting in the chair opposite Regis Philbin on Who Wants to be a Millionaire when the February sweeps begin? Try Nick Carter and Howie Dorough. For those who don't know (and I count myself among them), Carter and Dorough are members of the singing group The Backstreet Boys. And, along with Metallica's Lars Ulrich, Kiss singer Gene Simmons, and Emily Robinson of the Dixie Chicks, they're ABC's lifelines to the younger audience that seems to be deserting the network these days.

Why all the fuss about putting a bunch of overpaid rockers on a game show? It's getting darn near crisis time as younger viewers appear to be tuning out the established Big Four of network TV. In the most recent Nielsen numbers, in fact, each of them -- ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox -- lost big chunks of their 18-to-34-year-old audiences. For ABC, Backstreet Boys and Metallica singers are one way to try luring them back. Indeed, all the networks look more than a little frantic as they hustle around to lure those younger folk back from cable, their computers, or wherever they're going these days. The reason: Americans 18 to 34 are considered the Holy Grail for advertisers.


  For ABC, the numbers are fairly daunting. Although Philbin's Millionaire has been a Godsend to the network, all but single-handedly catapulting it to the top of the ratings race, it hasn't done wonders for ABC's demographics. So far this year, it has lost 9% of its 18- to 34-year-olds. The median age for the network's viewers is now 46, up from 42 last spring. That's because Philbins' quiz show brings in way too many of the over-50 crowd. And, as advertisers know, most of those folks tend to be putting their money into mutual funds and college tuition, and steering clear of the kind of impulse purchases that advertisers crave.

Networks have been losing audience ever since the Backstreet Boys were just glimmers in their parents' eyes. But the bad news these days is that youngsters really seem to be turning off the networks. Even Fox, which has seen its audience jump by 8% this year, has lost 2% of its younger viewership. Homer Simpson just doesn't seem to be as funny anymore to changeable youth. And the numbers are downright frightening for CBS, whose audience has always been older than the rest. So far this year, it has lost 11% of those 18- to 34-year-olds, according to Nielsen. Yikes.

At their annual soiree with the TV press in early January, network execs put their best spin on the numbers. Despite aging audiences, even for shows like Friends, NBC's Scott Sassa stressed that his network's audience still boasts TV's highest concentration of upper-income types. ABC network chief Stu Bloomberg insisted there was no need for worry.


  But actions often speak louder than words, as they say, and these same folks are hustling to win back the viewers who have been clicking their way to Sex and The City on HBO or whatever's on MTV at the moment. That's one reason why Fox put so much sex and titillation in its promo spots for its new show Temptation Island. You have to give it credit. So far the approach seems to be working: The show is a big hit among the 18-to-34 crowd.

And as the February sweeps approach, prepare to see a lot more flesh on TV. CBS seems to have plenty of hard bodies among the crew it's sending to the Australian outback for Survivor 2, which starts Jan. 28 (just after the Super Bowl, of course). They're younger, prettier, and supposedly sharper than the group who hung out on that rat-infested desert island. Old Rudy and Richard whetted CBS's appetite this summer: Not only did they lure more than 20 million folks a week (and nearly 52 million for their finale) but that crowd was younger. At a average age of 42 years, they helped shave five years off CBS's median age and got introduced to CBS programming such as Everyone Loves Raymond, which has seen its share jump. If Rudy and Richard could do, imagine what some hard body in a bikini could do, or so goes the thinking at the Tiffany Network.

Of course, no one can match the World Wrestling Federation when it comes to luring in the lowest -- and youngest -- denominator. NBC will turn over three hours of its Sunday-night lineup to Vince McMahon & Co. for XFL football. So far, all we know is that it'll be rock 'em, sock 'em football, where fair catches aren't allowed and quarterbacks are fair game. Smash-mouth sport seems to work when it comes to wrestling, which drags in a hard-core audience of men under 40 to UPN, giving it 5 million viewers a week. That makes wrestling UPN's top-rated show and a strong lure for younger guys. And the XFL will have saucy young cheerleaders who are expected to bear more than their pom poms for the camera.

With all this skin, violence, and rock stars, network TV is starting to look a lot like cable television. Which might just be the idea. Maybe the Backstreet Boys will bring a few of their MTV followers to Regis' show. If so, ABC may just have have discovered advertisers' version of the fountain of youth.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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