The Tag-Along Generation

American television is obsessed with serving young adult viewers because that's whom most advertisers want to reach. But the 77 million baby boomers who once defined the youth culture are not being left behind as they drift toward Social Security.

In fact, as the population ages, the broadcast networks are reaching far more boomers than younger adults. Some cable networks like TV Land are touting audiences mostly made up of this large, affluent and older generation born between 1946 and 1964.

An increasing number of advertisers like Unilever soap brand Dove and financial-services company Ameriprise are developing campaigns geared specifically toward boomers—adults 42-60.

“The biggest need for consumers—the ones we're targeting—is retirement,” says Giunero Floro, VP/head of advertising, brand and media at Ameriprise Financial. “Consumers tend not to think about retirement until their 40s. So there's an obvious connection in terms of what we do, which is one-to-one financial planning. Coupled with the biggest financial need for consumers, that equates to a target that is in the boomer age range.”

Still, one needs only to attend the upcoming broadcast and cable upfront presentations to hear a lot about 18-34s and 18-49s, including from new networks The CW and My Network TV. And very little will be heard about boomers, particularly the older end of the demographic.

Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBC, explains that networks focus on demographics of most interest to advertisers, which for now typically means adults 18-49 but also increasingly 18-34.

But he also acknowledges that these age-based demographics don't always accurately reflect the audiences watching networks like NBC.

“What you're seeing in the media world is that more programs are becoming much more targeted,” Wurtzel says. “Our programming sweet spot is 35-49,” but if the programs reach each enough of that demographic, they will also reach enough older demos too.

On average, the median age of people watching the six broadcast networks in prime time in fourth quarter was 47.1 years old, according to a Magna Global analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. That is up from 46.1 a year earlier and 45 in 2001.

ABC had the youngest median age of a Big Three network at 45.8 years old. The median age of NBC's prime time audience was 49.1, while CBS as always, was oldest, at 51.8 years old.

Even the median age for younger-skewing networks fell into a range that ensures at least a good portion are baby boomers. The median age Fox viewer was 37.3 years old; on The WB, 36.7; on UPN, 30.9.

Moreover, many network programs—including news and prime time shows like NBC's Law & Order, CBS' Two and a Half Men and ABC's Commander in Chief—reach primarily the eldest boomers The median age of viewers for each is 50 years or older.

One very small niche network, AmericanLife TV, specifically targets boomers. The network, once called Nostalgia TV, has a mix of classic shows like Courtship of Eddie's Father and originals developed for boomers, such as the upcoming Moments That Changed Us.

“This is a very valuable audience,” says Darlene Chapman-Holmes, VP of marketing at AmericanLife TV. “They are spending $2 trillion annually on goods and services, so advertisers are starting to realize that and focus on this group.” AmericanLife has a very small slice of it.

Several cable networks either are programmed for or inadvertently reach a sizable number of boomers with a median age over 50. Among them: ESPN2, Lifetime, Biography and all the cable news networks.

Not everyone is convinced that advertisers will continue to pay much attention to older consumers as the boomers age. One television executive plainly says the importance of the baby boom generation is diminishing as it ages out of its prime earning years.

“One reason advertisers like 18-49 is that families tend to buy the most products that used to be advertised on mainstream tele­vision, like packaged goods,” he says. “But now you have the baby boom growing outside the 18-49 demographic. In fact, by next year or the year after, only about 20% of the 18-49 demo will be baby boomers. It will mostly be Gen-Xers and Gen Y, who are very different people.”

John Spiropoulos, VP/group research director at MediaVest, says that most broadcasters and cable networks flaunt any success they have with younger viewers for two reasons.

The first is that it's the group many advertisers are trying to reach. But, second, the networks are already reaching so many boomers that it's tough for advertisers to find younger people, putting a premium on post-boomer generations.

“Regardless of what the networks use in their sales pitch, they get older viewers,” he says. “If CBS' 18-49 rating is about a 4, their 50-plus rating is about a 9. The disparity isn't as large on ABC and NBC, but it's somewhere around a 4 and a 6. The ratings are just so much higher for the older audience because they watch more television that it makes this segment easier to reach.”