The Business of TelevisionThe New Middle AgesTV's Silver Age
By Lorne Manly The New York Times
May 6, 2007
TV Land, that cable network repository of pop-culture comfort food, knows how to put on a splashy marketing event. The current resting place for series like The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched and Little House on the Prairie, TV Land transformed a restaurant in Times Square into the Bat cave, complete with Adam West and Julie Newmar prowling the premises and the Batmobile parked outside, to celebrate its fifth anniversary in 2001. On a rainy afternoon in March, however, the network forsook its usual irreverent shout-outs to television's past glory. Instead, for its latest effort to woo advertisers and media buyers, TV Land hired Bill Clinton to speak soberly about the future of the planet.
Though not the most obvious connection to the network's soothing retro fare, renting Clinton for the afternoon did fit TV Land's new corporate strategy: rebranding the network as the baby-boomer channel. And no one epitomizes the 78-million-strong boomers like the first boomer president. Inside the Frederick P. Rose Hall concert space in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, Clinton began his speech with a bit of light humor that was solidly on-message. So I came here mostly because I thought you should have some typical baby-boomer viewer of TV Land to appear before the advertisers to say that there are real-life, flesh-and-blood, gracefully aging people who like TV Land, he said to nearly 900 mostly young people in marketing and advertising.
Clinton's quip underscored a sobering reality for members of his generation: the advertising industry is just not that into them. As boomers enter their 50s and 60s, the allure they once held for marketers has faded. The advertisers who spend about $70 billion a year advertising on broadcast, cable and local channels would rather chase the young, and they pay handsomely for the privilege.
TV Land, whose offerings tend to attract this disfavored demographic, has had to struggle against that Madison Avenue mind-set. But by latching onto boomers (like Clinton), whose dynamism coexists with a hefty sense of self-involvement and entitlement, the network hopes to undo the conventional advertising wisdom about the over-50 crowd. If this generation has redefined everything from race relations to music, how hard could it be to change the ad-buying habits of the television industry?
The boomer strategy informs everything TV Land now does, whether the amped-up original programming it is creating, the movies it just started showing every Friday night or the new logo the network will soon roll out. There is even a new slogan, Here for the TV Generation. (Research shows that baby boomers hate being called baby boomers.) TV Land wants to be like Willy Wonka's Everlasting Gobstopper: familiar but always changing, with a flavor you can't get anywhere else. And just as the reference speaks to those boomers who grew up reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, so, too, will TV Land speak to their generation's life experiences and milestone events. TV Land just hopes advertisers (and viewers) have a hankering for the new, improved taste.
Clutter and Kitsch are welcome in the corporate offices of TV Land, high above Times Square. Larry W. Jones, pop-culture savant and TV Land's president, uses a mouse pad embossed with characters from America's television pantheon: Mr. T and the rest of the A-Team squeeze in next to Charlie's Angels, Andy Griffith and the Honeymooners. A Dee doll from What's Happening!! perches on the credenza behind his desk. And Jones proudly displays not one but two of the bottles from which Barbara Eden miraculously materialized for five seasons on I Dream of Jeannie. (They are actually Jim Beam Christmas decanters from 1964, which the show's prop master painted to look as if they had washed ashore after 2,000 years.)
This passionate embrace of American television heritage with a dollop of ironic distance doesn't just permeate the 48th floor of the headquarters of Viacom, TV Land's parent company, where the Honeymooners set is encased in glass in the lobby. It also captures TV Land's entire sensibility. The network may be the cable outpost where I Love Lucy and The Brady Bunch live on seemingly forever, but the mocking tones of Harry Shearer, the voice of the channel's on-air promotions, subvert the no-place-like-home vibe.
TV Land made its debut in 1996, an offshoot of Nick at Nite, which takes over once the kid-focused Nickelodeon concludes its broadcast day. Nick at Nite was a ratings smash in the early- and mid-1990s, spurring the channel's executives to devise new ways to dish up more of America's television history. A 24-hour channel devoted to classic television would solve the problem.
Though both Nick at Nite and TV Land, siblings in Viacom's MTV Networks unit, revel in the televised past, they attract surprisingly different audiences. Nick at Nite, with shows of more recent vintage (like Full House and Fresh Prince of Bel Air), gets many of the young mothers whose children were watching Dora the Explorer on Nick hours earlier. And that younger audience with a median age of 23 is catnip to advertisers.
TV Land's viewers, by contrast, have a median age of 55. Even though the network has nearly a million of them during prime time fewer than Nick at Nite but more than MTV or CNN they are the group advertisers care least about reaching. So Larry Jones and his team are trying to change the way a generation is perceived. Their viewers, they argue, are not a sedentary group of skinflints stuck in their ways; they are profligate boomers, and marketers ignore them at their own peril. TV Land is trying to redefine itself not merely as a channel with old shows but as one that speaks to the lifestyle and life stages of its viewers.
TV Land proposes to accomplish this by bolstering and tweaking its lineup of original programming. At first, the network's few original shows, like The TV Land Awards, stayed close to the channel's raison d'être: television nostalgia. Even its first foray into reality programming two years ago, Chasing Farrah, was anchored around a 1970s television personality, Farrah Fawcett. The new batch of programming, though, refers not at all to jiggle shows or guilty-pleasure sitcoms from boomer youth but to the pop-culture talismans and life experiences this generation shares. One show already on the air, TV Land Myths & Legends, branches out to music (Whom did Carly Simon demonize in You're So Vain?) and film (Was Walt Disney cryogenically frozen?). George Foreman, the ferocious boxer of the '70s reborn as cuddly pitchman for grills and mufflers, will get to impart his life lessons to his 10 children (including five sons named George) in Family Foreman. And My Big 4-0, a midlife-crisis companion to the excess portrayed on MTV's My Super Sweet 16, will let people fete themselves in style as they enter their so-called power years.
Just because I'm 46 doesn't mean I'm on a nostalgia trip and I only want to look back, Jones told me. I want to be entertained.
Don't get me wrong; I love classic TV. It will always be a big part of our formula going forward. But we believe there is this huge market opportunity that Madison Avenue and a lot of marketers haven't really woken up to, haven't embraced in a big way and, quite frankly, the American culture hasn't embraced in a big way.
Every Wednesday morning, newspapers across the country run a chart of the previous week's highest-rated television shows. Most television executives basically ignore that list. They have eyes only for subsets of those overall figures, particularly one they call the demo. That's televisionspeak for viewers ranging in age from 18 to 49. The demo may seem nonsensical after all, what does a high-school graduate have in common with someone becoming a grandmother for the first time? but it drives the television business.
Television didn't always chase this group. In the early years, Nielsen, the ratings arbiter, measured viewership more broadly. But a desperate, last-place ABC, back in the time when television meant three networks and not hundreds of channels, changed all that. Through the '50s and into the '60s, ABC was always the runt of the litter, says Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC Universal and a former ABC executive. The network placed few shows in the Top 30. But it did attract plenty of youthful audiences. So in the '60s, ABC executives championed the 18-to-49 demographic. It still covered a large swath of the population, but it pushed the idea that this baby-boom generation the first one to grow up with television and of a size that dwarfed any cohort that came before would reshape American culture and its buying habits.
Advertisers bit, and the special reports Nielsen ran for ABC soon became the currency of the television-advertising marketplace. ABC's model of programming dramas with smoldering young leads (Ben Casey, The Mod Squad), cartoons (The Flintstones), kid-friendly sitcoms (The Donna Reed Show) was adapted by NBC and CBS, which had watched their higher-rated shows bring in proportionately less advertising revenue. Several endearing television characters at CBS suddenly vanished: Uncle Joe of Petticoat Junction, derailed; Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason and their respective shows, jettisoned. In their place came more modern comedies like All in the Family, M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, sitcoms that were urban, sardonic, current. The arrival of Fox in the 1980s with brash shows like Married . . . With Children cemented the television industry's infatuation with youth. Today, the first order of business for many a new network executive is to drive down the age of the typical viewer.
Ultimately, the broadcast and cable networks are merely delivering what advertisers value. ABC's Lost doesn't attract many more viewers than CBS's Criminal Minds each Wednesday night. But a 30-second ad on Lost fetches $328,000, while a spot on Criminal Minds costs just $143,000, according to an Advertising Age survey published in September. The difference: Lost finishes regularly in the Top 10 among 18-to-49-year-olds. Criminal Minds comes nowhere close. David Poltrack, the research guru for CBS, says, When you see that kind of pricing, you see the kind of bias that's in the marketplace.
This state of affairs baffles many in the TV, marketing and consumer-research businesses. Why walk away from the group with the most money to spend and the biggest appetite to spend it? says Ken Dychtwald, host of the recent PBS documentary The Boomer Century and the chief executive of Age Wave, a consulting group. (TV Land hired Age Wave to help quantify boomers' value to marketers.) Dychtwald may well be biased his firm makes its living beating the drums for baby boomers' specialness but he's not wrong. Boomers' household income and discretionary income are about 50 percent higher than those of the most coveted slice of the adult audience, people between the ages of 18 and 34. Boomers spend more on clothes, groceries, cars, even movies.
These statistics must do battle with a marketing truism that stretches back decades. The argument is simple: If you grab them young, you get their business for life. You might as well stop wasting your money on the older crowd (except if you're promoting Viagra or other pharmaceuticals); their decisions about what cereal to buy and what car to tool around in have calcified into unshakable brand loyalty. Dychtwald, though, argues that the baby-boom generation is one that shows little compunction about changing careers, marriages, even religions. The idea that they're going to stick to the same toothpaste for decades is just ridiculous, he says. Numerous research studies in recent years have suggested that boomers exhibit no more loyalty to brands than those impressionable young adults do.
But another, mightier obstacle stands in the way of TV Land and like-minded boomer champions: the scarcity conundrum. Andrew Donchin, director of national broadcast at Carat USA, one of the country's largest media buyers, explains, That younger audience is more elusive to reach. And that makes them worth the premium if you can find them.
Indeed, baby boomers, like middle-aged viewers in generations past, plop themselves in front of their televisions much more often than young adults. Last year, adults age 45 to 64 (the Nielsen category closest to the baby-boom generation) watched 37 hours and 38 minutes of television each week. Adults between 18 and 34 tuned in for barely more than 27 hours. So it's not hard to attract an older audience: boomers will flock to shows with a younger sensibility. The reverse, however, does not hold. If you do something a little bit safer, a little more center cut, it's pretty hard to convince a younger audience to come, Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment, told me.
And in a time of bountiful entertainment choices, television executives have to compete more fiercely for the attention of viewers, to get their stars onto the fluffy Hollywood shows, in newspaper stories, on Web sites and airbrushed onto magazine covers. Who tends to end up on covers of magazines? Reilly asked. It tends to be the young, hot casts.
Scanning the magazines on his desk, he spied Evangeline Lilly of Lost sprawling seductively across the cover of TV Guide. On another cover were the ethnically diverse but homogeneously young and good-looking cast members of Heroes. But I don't see Mandy Patinkin on any cover, Reilly said of the star of Criminal Minds. And you know what? That's a good show.
We are a sex- and youth-obsessed culture, he added. I'm not saying it's right or wrong. It's just what it is.
For years CBS has battled a reputation as the Geritol network, with the oldest viewers of any of the major broadcasters. In the mid-'90s the company tried to make a virtue of its older audience, much as TV Land is doing now, but Madison Avenue was unmoved. Then CBS stumbled upon a new strategy, after the surprise success of Survivor and CSI.
This approach favored multigenerational casting and, in dramas, surrounding a middle-aged authority figure (often grizzled) with a group of young, attractive acolytes. It appealed to younger viewers without driving away older ones. Take a look at CBS's prime-time lineup, and you will find nine shows built on this boomer-and-the-cool-kids blueprint. CBS now not only wins the network ratings race most weeks in overall numbers; it regularly places shows like CSI and Without a Trace in the Top 20 among viewers ages 18 to 49. If an audience is big enough, the demos take care of themselves, says Kelly Kahl, a senior executive vice president at CBS.
As a narrowly focused cable channel, however, TV Land cannot copy CBS's big-tent strategy. Instead, it is doubling down on its boomer identity, infusing everything related to the network with a cheeky take including its own on-air promos. Until recently, these humorous spots might weave together clips from various shows (a shot of Richie Cunningham speaking on the phone would reveal Andy Griffith on the other end of the line) to demonstrate the breadth of the network's library. That approach has been consigned to the past. If we're going to be about the people who watch the network, then we better define who they are, Kim Rosenblum, TV Land's senior vice president and creative director, told me. The best way to illustrate who boomers are now, Rosenblum said, is to show who they are not, by contrasting them with other generations.
On a Friday in mid-March, Rosenblum convened her team to do just that. Joe Boyd, the writer of the promotions, sketched out the conceit for an ad in the new image campaign: Once again, there are three generations sitting on the couch grandpa, father (our hero) and the teenage son. But this 20-second spot, called Tattoos, was proving problematic. There was no debate over what tattoo to give the grandfather: a snake on the forearm from his days in the Navy. And the dad would announce that he had somehow managed to live a fairly happy, fulfilled life without one. But the first choice for the teenage son's ink didn't fly with the network's legal department. Not surprisingly, Winnie the Pooh giving the finger was not an option, Boyd told the room. After a spirited discussion about the best jarring, humorous tattoo to replace Winnie, Rosenblum eventually chose the Grim Reaper eating a kitten, rejecting such other antiboomer options as a smiley face with fangs, a mushroom cloud or a baby with a handgun. Where you are in chronological age literally changes your perspective, Rosenblum said.
TV Land is applying the same attitude to its original programming. High School Reunion, one of the reality shows it has in the works, actually ran several years ago on the WB, a broadcast network that catered to 18-to-34-year-olds before it was subsumed by the CW network. But while the WB revisited the graduates for their 10-year reunion, the TV Land version will take place 20 years after graduation. And the tropes of the typical reality show the conniving, the hookups, the blurred and bleeped-out features and words will be missing or minimized as TV Land hunts for a relatively wholesome escapism that will go down as easily as the old classics. The goal of this thing is not to get a bunch of people in the hot tub making out, Jones, the network president, said.
Yet TV Land's original programming project is pockmarked with contradictions. The youngest boomers are turning 43 this year and the oldest are reaching 61, but the stars of High School Reunion and My Big 4-0, two of the network's higher-profile entries, are, by definition, years or decades younger. As for 35 and Beyond Supermodel Search, plenty of the aspirants will surely come from Generation X as well. TV Land executives tie themselves up in rationalizations defending their approach. It is easier to get single people by holding the reunion after 20 years, they maintain, rather than 25. And 40 rather than 50, they argue, is truly the midlife point, when people get all existential and ask what they are going to do with the rest of their lives. As Jones put it, People freak out more at 40.
All the tortured explanations might just be Madison Avenue realpolitik, a recognition that the network needs to hedge its bets. The stars of TV Land's other shows including Family Foreman and a planned scripted series that will follow the stars of Laverne and Shirley, Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams fall squarely in the boomer age range. But creating shows is much more expensive than acquiring them, and TV Land has to be careful not to get too far out in front of advertisers and viewers.
In front of Jones's desk, a Happy Days rerun played on one of the three TV screens. The Fonz, wearing his omnipresent black leather jacket, water skis and an unfortunate pair of tight, baby blue shorts, prepared to jump his motorcycle over a shark. The phrase jumping the shark would later became seared in the national consciousness, representing the point where some pop-culture form made a drastic change and careered off the creative cliff. TV Land hopes to avoid that fate.http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/06/ma...gewanted=print