The Critical 'I'

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Tuesday, December 16, 2003

REALITY CHECK: THE SAVIOR OF TELEVISION?
There's been lots of hand-wringing of late over numbers that indicate a mass defection of younger demographics from the boob tube audience. The broadcast networks have been most affected, and thus are making the most noise about it, but even cable is feeling the pinch. Early attempts to lay the blame on Nielsen's methodology have given way to deeper examination of what's causing the big turn-off.

Why are the youngsters ignoring TV? Aside from a perceived different approach toward all kinds of media, the pullback on reality TV programming this fall is starting to be identified as the culprit. The theory that's developing is that reality shows are sure-thing attractors for young demographics, and the much-talked-about lessening of that genre after last summer sent the message to 20- and 30-somethings that there was nothing left for them to watch. Naturally, the remedy would be a strong comeback by reality shows.

The drawback to that strategy? Oddly, it involves taking care of the advertisers:

Last February, when the broadcast networks were heavy on reality, "it absolutely wreaked havoc with the broadcast schedules," said [Initiative Media research chief Stacey Lynn] Koerner.

Where there was reality, broadcast networks got younger, while other programs skewed older. Advertisers looking for older viewers, she pointed out, were left with spots on young-skewing programs. "It left a lot of advertisers scrambling and angry" and prompted broadcasters to hype scripted shows over reality in their upfront presentations last spring.

Few advertisers took the bait, though, Koerner said. "I wouldn't say that any of them believed we wouldn't see reality back on the schedule this year."

I can't believe it'd be so difficult to slot advertisers with the appropriate shows. It's not rocket science: Sell one target demo for younger-skewing shows, another for older-skewing shows. What's the problem? They've been doing it that way since before television.

I've got to wonder about how these media insiders view their audiences:

One of cable's cheerleaders, MTV Networks research chief Betsy Frank says viewers born since the mid 1970s—she calls them "media actives"—are disenchanted with broadcast programs (heavy on drama this fall) and scheduling (late night is young viewers' prime time). They're accustomed to having multiple entertainment options: videogames, cable and the Internet as well as television...

"They gravitate to content that appeals to them at the moment," said Koerner. "That doesn't mean, if there is nothing on broadcast, they will watch more cable."

This reminds me of an article relating a brief stint by a Tampa Bay household as a Nielsen family, which didn't work out because they didn't watch enough "default" television. I swear, these execs can't conceive of a population that doesn't have every television set in the house on for 20 hours a day. Is it really such a revolutionary concept that the TV isn't the sole entertainment device in the average household? I mean, videogames have been around for almost thirty years, for crying out loud.