Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

As the fate of Nightline hung in the balance recently, a lot of people out there could feel Ted Koppel’s pain—and I’m not just talking about Sam Donaldson.

Every baby boomer who has passed into the demographic netherworld of 50-plus, or is approaching that point of no return, must feel the sting of rejection. Like Ted himself, we wait in vain for Michael Eisner to make us a firm commitment.

As much as Koppel’s three-day workweek or the 24-hour nattering of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, aging viewers are to blame for Nightline’s uncertain future. Network news shows—now brought to you by arthritis pain relievers, hormone-replacement therapy and panty shields—are vulnerable precisely because they attract too many people who remember where they were when JFK was shot.

Boomer foreheads crease with pain—or they would, were they not shot up with Botox—at the notion that they are too old to attract the attention of advertisers and media. All the liposuction, face-lifts, derma-abrasions and weight training in the world cannot keep the erstwhile Youth Generation from aging inside their heads. Once, television would do anything to please us and advertisers pay anything to reach us. Now, we are the kiss of death. Who could have imagined that Disney would one day turn on the original members of the Mickey Mouse Club?

And it’s not just Disney. As Media week reported recently, the folks at A&E, having noticed the average age of their viewership creeping upward, are performing a face-lift of their own—on their programming lineup. Newspaper executives grow grayer with every survey that shows their readership aging. North of the border, even the CBC—not exactly a hotbed of hipness—is sharpening the edge of its radio programming in hopes of attracting younger ears. It’s fine for Greta Van Susteren to get an eye job, but if too many in her audience need one, she’s toast.

Ever since boomers began crossing the threshold of the Big Five-O, there have been complaints over marketers’ indifference to the older consumer. Such attitudes are archaic, the critics say. Don’t advertisers know that 50 is the new 40? That boomers are nothing like their parents? That they’re about Harleys, not hip replacements?

Such critics might as well save their breath. During CBS’ long years with the grayest demos in network television, its sales people talked themselves blue promoting the virtues of mature viewers, not the least of which was their possession of the lion’s share of the nation’s wealth. Advertisers never bought it. They stuck by the conventional wisdom that brand loyalties and consumer behaviors are formed early and, once formed, pretty much stay the same.

Besides, it is so easy to find viewers over 50 that their attention is inevitably worth less, as dictated by the law of supply and demand. Boomers became avid television watchers in their formative years, and have remained so—just as the get-’em-when-they’re-young school of thought would predict.

At the risk of rubbing salt in my cohort’s narcissistic wounds, I have to say that advertisers are right. For all the wealth they command, boomers are not worth what they used to be to a host of hawkers of the new and improved: snack foods, beverages, electronics, entertainment and much more. Partly this is because as one gets older, one gets better at discerning between the things that are worthy of attention and those that are not. Experience is a great filter.

Far from a tragedy, this faculty is a good thing. It makes it easier to concentrate precious time on what really counts. It eliminates of a lot of mental clutter. It allows one to experience life more deeply and more simply—and aren’t those the consumer values du jour? Yet it also makes one an inferior target for a lot of products that make the media go round.

Yes, relative to previous generations, today’s 50-somethings are more adventurous, more experimental, more active, more fit. They were raised to be consumers from an early age, as their elders were not. And who knows—by the time Generation Z needs reading glasses, perhaps marketers will have succeeded in turning consumers of all ages into permanent teenagers: perpetually style-conscious, fickle, insecure, in search of identity. The perfect marketing target from cradle to grave.

But I doubt it. There’s something about seeing the wheel of popular culture turn over three or four times that makes the whole spectacle less compelling. So, boomers, the media doesn’t want you? Get over it. Isn’t it worth it to lose the 11:30 p.m. time slot if one can gain the world?