Last updated: October 25, 2013 - 7:24am
The TV industry, like much of corporate America, chases youth. That pursuit has a major impact on programming.
It helps explain why a low-rated show such as NBC's "Community" can keep going (and going, and going ...) while older-skewing shows are usually toast. Even if they have more total viewers. Most TV networks are chasing viewers in the "demo," or the demographic ages 18 to 49 as measured by Nielsen. But how and why did that happen? And is that even rational? The first question is easier to answer. During the early years of commercial TV, Nielsen estimated total audiences. It sounds ridiculous in our tech-savvy world, but back then Nielsen's measurements depended largely on written diaries that members of each household in the survey were obligated to fill out. That's how we know, for example, that 73-million people watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan's show in February 1964. It's also why network TV aimed for mass audiences and maintained conventions such as a "family hour," when parents and kids could sit down together to watch shows. This led critics to charge that executives were programming a "lowest common denominator" medium — a "vast wasteland," in the timeless phrase of former FCC chief Newton Minow — that weeded out minority views and tastes. But it was how TV worked for 40 years.
But when Nielsen introduced "people meters" in 1987, that all changed. These meters allowed for more precise measurement of viewing — and also for speedy and detailed breakdowns by age and gender. Marketers loved this data. The ad industry believed young adults were the most valuable market segment by far. Even though older adults usually had greater net worths, young people went out more and spent more money on movies and beer. Also, people under 40 were believed to be more susceptible to ad pitches and hence more likely to change brands or to try something totally new. The effect on TV programming was dramatic.
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