TV ads target youth, ignoring 'old money'

Oscar Wilde once neatly captured the perpetually young-at-heart mood of the United States when he quipped, "The youth of America is their oldest tradition."

That was more than a century ago, but the power of a youth-oriented culture remains as strong as ever. For the latest proof, check recent headlines describing efforts by producers of three television programs to woo younger audiences.

Early last month, ABC sought to replace Ted Koppel with CBS's David Letterman. Koppel's "Nightline" draws more viewers, but Letterman's audience is younger, attracting more advertising revenue. Koppel managed to keep his job, but he's revamping his show for a hipper audience.

Three weeks later, Louis Rukeyser, the host of PBS's "Wall Street Week" for 32 years, was fired by Maryland Public Television officials. They, too, want younger viewers.

Then CNN unveiled a new version of its long-running "Crossfire." It features two new hosts, a more combative tone, and a live studio audience at George Washington University. Should anyone be surprised that the changes are designed in part to bring in younger viewers?

All TV networks, along with newspapers and magazines, must continually find ways to reinvigorate their audiences and attract new viewers and readers. They must also appeal to advertisers, without whom they could not exist.

Those advertisers covet Â- and ardently court Â- adults between the ages of 18 and 49. But their most-prized demographic group of all is between 18 and 34 Â- young people who, they believe, are not yet wedded to particular brands. Older buyers may have more money, Madison Avenue reasoning goes, but they're less malleable than the young.

Call it audience discrimination, a subtle form of age bias by TV marketers.

That mind-set needs urgent updating. Baby boomers Â- the biggest group of consumers in the nation's history Â- may be heading for retirement, but they're definitely not heading into the sunset. The oldest boomers are no longer 49, but they still have fat bank accounts and long shopping lists.

Many are also a decade or two younger in outlook and spending habits than their parents were at the same age. Memo to advertisers and producers: Forget those dusty images of rocking chairs.

There's an irony here: Older people will soon outnumber young people around the world for the first time. Speaking at a United Nations assembly on aging in Madrid this month, Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, said: "We need to recognize that as more people are better educated, live longer, and stay healthy longer, older persons can and do make greater contributions to society than ever before."

They can also make greater contributions to marketers' bottom lines than ever before. By one estimate, Americans over 50 hold 70 percent of the nation's wealth.

Television ratings and revenue hold undeniable power. But there must be ways to go beyond courting just the MTV generation and its "young money." Maybe it's time to update Oscar Wilde to read: "The over-50s of America are their newest tradition."

"Old money" talks, too.

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