Boomers get mixed treatment on TV

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- The first generation to grow up with TV is starting to gray -- but you would never know it if you turned on the television.

Finding a character over age 45 on a network TV show can be challenging because most programs are about people in their 30s or younger. That focus on youth is ironic for the 76 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964, many of whom were among the medium's earliest and biggest fans. The generation is gradually moving into its 50s, but TV has yet to catch up to reality.

Network TV ''characters tend to be 20- to 30-somethings, young 30-somethings at that, and then it stops,'' said Laura Hinson, a 42-year-old public relations executive in Oklahoma City. ''Sometimes there will be a token older person, a larger woman or 40-something adult, but that's not enough to grab me. I want stories that reflect my experiences. These usually don't.''

The lack of boomer characters, industry experts say, reflects advertisers' belief that viewers ages 18-49, and preferably younger, are the best audience for their products. Although older consumers have more spending power, the theory is they are less flexible in their buying choices and therefore worth fewer advertising dollars.

''Even though boomers have a lot of time and disposable income, they don't have the one thing to make them attractive to advertisers: They don't have high degrees of brand ambivalence. They've already decided what brands they want to buy,'' said James Twitchell, an English and advertising professor at the University of Florida.

The age of the people developing new programs is another factor.

''Producers tend to be younger,'' said Alex McNeil, author of ''Total Television'' and a boomer himself. ''The best way to write is from experience. So if you're 30, it's much easier to write from the perspective of a 30-year-old than a 50-year-old.''

TV has also always favored good looks, and in a society where people are constantly looking for new ways to look younger, there is hesitance to put too many wrinkles, gray hairs or aging bodies on the air.

The result is shows with themes aimed at younger viewers. Although older characters might be part of the cast, they are rarely in a starring or otherwise idealized role. A 50-something character is much more likely to be part of a multigenerational cast.

''The older characters are there, but they're not the main focus of the show,'' said Bud Carey, an associate professor at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications and former general manager of WCBS-TV in New York.

''Take 'ER' or 'The West Wing.' Who do you identify with, who's the focus on? The focus isn't really on the old sage doctor, who's seen it all. It's on the young doctor. It's a soap opera.''

Older characters are also portrayed differently than they were decades ago, when shows like ''Father Knows Best'' equated age with wisdom and respect. Today's programs are more likely to question the actions and competence of older characters, particularly TV parents.

The older characters on Fox's ''Boston Public'' battle weight gain, mental illness and loneliness in not-so-dignified ways and definitely don't always know better than the younger characters.

''If boomers were driving the entertainment business, you'd probably see 50-year-olds portrayed in a softer, more comfier light,'' Twitchell, the University of Florida professor, said.

Even programs that showcase older talent include younger cast members for plot lines to draw in the 18-49 demographic. CBS' new drama ''First Monday'' stars veteran actors James Garner and Joe Mantegna as U.S. Supreme Court justices, along with several younger actors who portray court clerks.

''Because most shows with political themes tend to have older audiences, my guess is that most of our audience will be 35-plus,'' said CBS spokesman Chris Ender. ''But we think those law clerks also provide someone for the younger audience to connect with.''

Although boomers say the bias toward younger viewers makes them less likely to watch network TV, they tend to be relatively understanding -- particularly because there are other options out there.

Cable TV features programming targeted to specific demographic groups, including viewers in their 40s and 50s. Cable can afford to do this because it gets revenues from subscribers as well as advertisers.

HBO programming explores sexuality and violence in ways that network TV cannot. Lifetime attracts women viewers with shows that discuss family and health among other themes. And TV Land capitalizes on boomer nostalgia with programming that includes old favorites such as ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show'' and ''The Love Boat.''

''I find the cable TV shows, particularly on HBO, to be more entertaining, clever and smarter. They are more realistic,'' said Hinson, the Oklahoma City executive. ''On the networks, I watch the news and a few shows like 'Law and Order' and 'West Wing,' but not much else.''

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