Reviews > Television

Skewing rich

Television | Alone among the big networks, NBC thrives by targeting "people who actually shop, not shoplift"

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

The May "sweeps"-the month-long battle for ratings that sets ad rates for the rest of the year-revealed a milestone for the television industry: the alternative TV media of cable, satellite, DVDs, and video games caught up with the Big Four broadcasters.

Of all sets that were on during the month, only half were tuned to ABC, CBS, Fox, or NBC. Forty-five percent of viewers were watching the plethora of specialized cable and satellite channels. Five percent were watching videos or playing video games.

But with all of the other national broadcasters struggling, NBC has become richer and more powerful than ever, thanks to a combination of shrewd targeting of audiences and canny business strategies.

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When the nation had only three networks, their strategy was to reach as many viewers as possible. Today, though, with new technology allowing for scores, even hundreds of channels, we are in an era of "narrowcasting," as networks and their advertisers target specific audiences with their own interests and demographics.

For the last decade, the Big Four have been narrowcasting based on age. Instead of airing programs to appeal to the greatest number, they have attempted to appeal to a specific demographic segment that advertisers lust after: young adults between 18 and 30. This is the age when people's buying habits are up in the air, easily manipulated, and can be set for life by the time they become old fogies set in their ways.

Networks could charge advertisers more for reaching this particular demographic, which tends to be amused by raunch, violence, and nihilism, than they could for family fare that appealed to a broader audience. Ally McBeal, with its co-ed bathrooms and yuppie sensibilities, actually attracted far fewer viewers than Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman or Murder, She Wrote, shows that were canceled because they "skewed old."

Now, NBC has taken demographic targeting to a new level, aiming its programs not so much to age groups as to wealth. NBC claims a huge lead in viewers under 50 who earn more than $75,000 per year. In being able to reach the most affluent viewers, NBC can charge advertisers big premiums. As NBC executive Scott Sassa told The Wall Street Journal, "NBC is the place to buy if you're selling to people who actually shop, not shoplift."

CBS has The King of Queens; NBC has Frasier. CBS has hits like Survivor and Touched by an Angel. NBC has hits like ER and West Wing. While Fox goes for quirky envelope-pushing shows like Malcolm in the Middle and King of the Hill, NBC cashes in with The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. ABC was reduced to showing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire nearly every night of the week until it wore out its welcome. NBC is trying to attract people who already are millionaires.

The masses love professional sports, but they have not been proving profitable for the networks. So NBC has dropped baseball, football, and next year will drop basketball. It will, however, retain its 10-year option on the Olympics, and its sports programming will focus on tennis, horse racing, and golf.

Not that NBC is highbrow. (Perhaps the most affluent viewers are those who watch operas on PBS.) NBC can be just as raunchy as other networks, although its raunch may go under the guise of "sophistication" rather than "vulgarity." Nor are the wealthy it aims at the sort associated with small businessmen, hard workers, or the Republican Party. Rather, its affluence is that associated with America's particular cultural elite.

The NBC world, for example, is noticeably lacking in children. Families do not have as much disposable income as the DINK (Double Income, No Kids) demographic. Although Rachel in NBC's franchise hit Friends had a baby in last season's finale, sources report that the child will mostly be kept out of sight in the next season.

Nor are there any minorities, to speak of, apart from the Hispanic maid on Will and Grace. Will, of course, is gay, making him a member of a particularly affluent minority group, the acceptance of which, along with other expressions of moral tolerance, is a characteristic value of America's cultural elite. Most everyone in NBC-land lives in a big city, not a suburb or small town, and shares the moral and political values of the "blue states."

Last year, NBC finished third, behind ABC and CBS for most viewers in prime time, and yet it made far more money. ABC and Fox are millions in the red, and, while CBS is projected to show a small profit, NBC will show an operating profit of $1.42 billion. This year, NBC is first in nearly every category-news, mornings, prime time, late night-which suggests that its rarified values are taking hold of the imagination even of the shoplifting class.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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