Aging Vision Shrinks Superboy-Marketing's Quest for Youth

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BUSINESS AND AGING

I am Superboy's worst nightmare. I'm worse than the insect boy, more dangerous than the liposuction girl, and, yes, even more treacherous than his archnemesis, Lex Luther. I admit it-I love the WB Network's program Smallville. It's fresh, brightly cast and smartly written, with unexpectedly rich character relationships-farmer Jonathan Kent nurturing his son, Clark; tycoon Lionel Luther in a power struggle with his scion, Lex. The show is much better than the original Superboy comics I collected before anyone heard the phrase "baby boomer." The program actually broaches social issues, and some have even dealt with aging.

So, why am I deadlier than kryptonite? Apparently, I can wither advertising revenues with my Aging Vision. That's right-I'm 57 years old; and, according to Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, WB doesn't want me anywhere near its demographics.

THE WRONG VIEWERS

In a 60 Minutes segment titled "Over the Hill" (September 29, 2002), Safer describes WB as "the network that prides itself on trying to have no viewers over 30." Safer leads off the piece by noting that when ABC tried dumping Ted Koppel's Nightline for David Letterman last spring, "the inescapable truth about television became brutally clear. It wasn't that Mr. Koppel did not have enough viewers, he just had the wrong viewers-older viewers, over the demographic hill, that magic mountain populated by 18-49-year-olds, whom the biggest advertisers lust after."

Jeff Zucker, the 37-year-old president of entertainment at NBC, agrees with Safer that most television programs are aimed at people age 30 and made by thirtysomethings. "Broadcasting is a business," Zucker assures the 70-year-old news veteran. "We want to do programs that will appeal to adults 18-49, that Madison Avenue will buy." Safer notes wryly that Zucker regards the average viewer of 60 Minutes, age 59, as "absolutely dispensable." (On Oct. 1, Jay Leno took this cheap shot: "There are now two programs on TV where they talk to the dead-well, three, if you count 60 Minutes.")

New York advertising executive Donnie Deutsch, whose Deutsch Inc. is credited with driving up sales of Mitsubishi automobiles in the United States, tells Safer, "In just about every category, people over age 55 are spending significantly less proportionately than every other demo [demographic]." Older consumers, he says, are best pitched such products as costly vacations, expensive cars, financial services, vitamins and headache remedies, but "the action" is in ads for fast food, movies, beer, soft drinks and video games-items less competifive where older eyeballs are concerned."

Deutsch explains that TV networks ignore the demonstrably wealthier older generation because "the younger the audience, the harder they are to reach on television. Television as a medium skews older. So the thinking on Madison Avenue is that it's a lot easier to reach those 55-plus,, because they're watching more TV. The 25-34 [age segment] of that 18-49 [group] is watching less TV, so you really have to kind of find them where they are." Networks spend billions of dollars "on trying to get those limited eyeballs to watch those particular shows." A rarity like NBC's West Wing aside, Zucker crows (see the October 2002 issue of Esquire) about gluing young eyeballs to his tube with Fear Factor and similar fare.

However, David Poltrack, CBS's vice president of research, objects, "The whole thing is just totally wrong, but that is what you hear every time you ask an advertising person why they go young." Poltrack observes that although CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves also tries to sell advertisers on the network's appeal to those age 18-49, the network with the oldest audience, about age 45 on average, is saying, "We still have the older viewers-they are important-and now we have the younger viewers, as well." Poltrack stresses, "The fact is that all of the statistical evidence, all of the marketing research that has been done documents that the fastest growing-audience in importance is the 55-plus audience. …