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There's Gold in the Golden Years

The most popular TV shows this season for one large, well-to-do demographic group that is virtually ignored by media buyers are NCIS, Dancing With the Stars, NCIS: Los Angeles and The Mentalist. The group is adults 55-64, the first wave of Baby Boomers.

Boomers, once known as the TV Generation, are becoming the audience the industry has forgotten. "Every seven seconds, somebody turns 55 and they move out of the final Nielsen monetizable demo," noted Alan Wurtzel, president for research at NBCUniversal, which has done studies on what it calls the Alpha Boomer.

It shouldn't be that way. Wurtzel thinks it might be harder for media buyers and planners to ignore these older consumers if ratings for viewers in that 55-64 demo landed on their desks every morning, along with the 18-34s, 18-49s and 25-54s. "In their typical fashion, Nielsen said, ‘Well, you know this is a big deal,'" and turned him down, Wurtzel said. Networks and buyers can calculate 55-64 demo ratings on their own, but the odds are against that happening at a time when resources are already stretched.

Viewing habits don't change that much when people pass 55. NBC gave a viewer sample a list of 35 channels and asked them to pick their favorites. "I kind of expected that being Alpha Boomers and growing up with ABC, CBS, NBC and then to some extent Fox, that they would just mention those guys," Wurtzel said. "Well, only 12% of the Alpha Boomers we spoke to mentioned just the broadcast networks, 45% mentioned a combination of broadcast and cable and another 43% only mentioned cable networks. So the idea that if you just buy network television you're going to get these guys, and they're not subject to the kind of fractionalization the younger consumers are evidencing, is just wrong."

Targeting Baby Boomers isn't a sure road to success. In 2005, TV Land plotted just such a strategy. "Super-serving the Baby Boomers is the way to go," network president Larry Jones said at the time. "No one's really speaking to this audience." Now, TV Land is targeting adults 25-54, with an emphasis on people in their 40s, according to a representative. (Jones was unavailable for comment.) In the 25-54 demo, TV Land's primetime ratings were down 7% in 2011 and down 12% in the first quarter of 2012.

Nevertheless, Boomers should be an attractive target for advertisers. "We all hear the joke about 50 being the new 30. But there's a lot of evidence to back that up," said Mark Young, chairman of Michigan ad agency Western Creative. People live longer now, but more importantly, all stages of people's lives are lengthening. And while grown-ups raising families used to be 18-49, plenty of 60-year-olds are now raising kids, rock climbing and riding motorcycles.

Targeting older consumers has paid off for some of Western Creative's clients. "We've been successful with some of our mainstream advertisers getting them to recognize that there is money past 49, especially with our consumer brands," Young said. Research found that Salon Grafix, which makes hair spray, shampoo and conditioner, generates a lot of sales from older consumers who can afford to buy expensive hair products. Targeting them has helped the company capture a 5% share of a huge category.

Western Creative reaches those consumers via TV. "They spend a lot of time with TV, and it becomes really efficient to talk to them," said Young.

Interestingly, female Baby Boomers are the fastest-growing group of tablet owners, according to Sharalyn Hartwell, executive director of Magid Generational Strategies. Hartwell added that this could affect how that demo watches TV. Boomers are "TV's bread and butter," Hartwell said. "They're slowly moving out of the key demos, but they're the ones that will plan their life around the show that they want to see on TV. They're everyone's dream in the industry."

Boomer women were slow to adopt smartphones and laptops, but now tablets could disrupt their TV-watching patterns. "I think it's going to lead to boomers consuming more online video," Hartwell adds. But, she added, Boomers aren't likely to be interested in interactivity. Sweepstakes where they can win prizes might entice Boomers, but opportunities to interact with stars of TV shows or other fans, a popular feature with the Millennial generation, is "not going to drive that engagement with Boomers."