Why TV skews yuppie

Culture | Under 18? Over 50? Then shows you like will be canceled no matter how good their ratings are

Issue: "Madness in the Methodist," July 25, 1998

If you are not between 18 and 49 years old, living in or near a big city, you don't count-at least to the television networks. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, a family-friendly western starring Jane Seymour, scored big in the ratings, usually winning its time slot against its competitors on Saturday nights. Despite emotional protests from its fans, CBS canceled the series. It wasn't that people were not watching it-every week, 12 million fans, which is a huge audience, tuned in. But, as far as the network and its advertisers were concerned, Dr. Quinn's fans were the wrong kind of people. Kids enjoyed Dr. Quinn, and so did their grandparents. Since the program was one of the few remaining prime-time programs considered appropriate for children, their parents usually appreciated it too, even if they didn't watch it themselves. People in small towns and rural communities also made a point of tuning it in. But these are not the demographics the advertisers want. The companies that buy commercials and thus finance television programming pay the networks extra high rates for delivering their ads to urban, college-educated people between 18 and 49. And if you are over 55, you might as well just put a call in for Dr. Kevorkian. "Unfortunately," said CBS president Les Moonves, "we get paid zero-not a nickel, but zero-for anybody over 55." Never mind that people in their fifties usually have more money to spend than twenty-somethings. By that time, their spending patterns are supposedly fixed, so they are less influenced by commercials. Older teenagers and yuppies are easier to manipulate. Thus, "skewing old" in the demographics is a kiss of death. Although the big urban markets only reflect 30 percent of the nation's viewers, they count, while the other 70 percent does not. "If you're not huge in New York, L.A., Chicago, you're finished, you're done," said TV consultant Paul Krumins, interviewed in the Boston Globe. "And those are very cynical audiences, so The Waltons isn't going to play anymore." Television producers have long responded to their critics by insisting that their programming simply reflects the values and desires of the American public. If TV programming today is filled with illicit sex, that's what people want to see. People won't watch more wholesome fare; otherwise, the TV industry would churn it out. It's all a matter of the free market. Now we know that this is incorrect. TV programming decisions are not set by the market, but by a specific segment of the market. Television does not reflect the tastes of the American public; it reflects the tastes of older teenagers and young urban professionals. No wonder TV skews to singles, not families. No wonder the humor skews to the juvenile and the cynical. No wonder so much of the programming seems so, so immature. Another factor is that the ad buyers, the TV executives, and the puffers in the media also tend to be in the 18-49 urban professional demographic. "It's not the guy at CBS who canceled the show," says Mr. Krumins. "It's the ad agencies that push the older, comfortable shows off the air." "The media buyers," he points out, "are all young kids, recent college grads making 26 grand. They plan based on their experience, and their experience is not the experience of a 50-year-old. They could give a hoot about Dr. Quinn." Thus, more than twice as many people watched Dr. Quinn, which ranked 75th in the ratings, as watched Dawson's Creek, the WB network's soap opera about sexually active teenagers, which ranked a dismal 132nd. And yet the latter is hailed as a major hit, with the other networks scrambling to imitate it. No one can deny that Touched by an Angel is the sixth-most-watched show in the country, but it does not have the advertising clout or the hipness factor of Melrose Place, at number 80. Judging from the writeups in the newsmagazines and the buzz among the hipmeisters, Ally McBeal is all the rage. But it ranks a mediocre 57th in the ratings, tied with another media favorite, Party of Five. In contrast, a show that scores high among older viewers, Diagnosis Murder, is a bonafide hit, ranking 25th, but nothing is heard about it. The journalists, though, and other opinion makers can relate to Ally McBeal. As a result, it gets mentions by The New York Times' Maureen Dowd and other influential columnists. What happened to Dr. Quinn also happened to Murder, She Wrote, which skewed old and so lost out to the yuppified Friends. This was also the fate of Christy, which was widely popular, a ratings hit, and explicitly Christian. Shows that reflect "traditional values" will thus, by the very nature of the system, have a hard time making it on TV. Those values are strongest in the small cities and towns of the so-called American heartland. Though 70 percent of the population lives there, they don't have the demographic clout of the more liberal-minded big cities. "Family values" appeal to families, but TV would much rather reach those who are unmarried or childless. What Christians would most like to see on television will likely not be on long. And this will be true no matter how many people actually watch the show. Leaving out of consideration the majority of the population and those who have the most money-including the vast bulge of aging baby boomers working their way through the demographic python-is not a genuine free market. If television wants to be governed only by the laws of supply and demand, let the market reign, but let it be an open market, not one artificially controlled by young ad buyers who want to be hip. There is no reason that a national medium always needs to skew yuppie.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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