Gray Gardens: Broadcast Audience Older Than Ever

Aging viewership coincides with steep ratings declines

If the low turnout for the new fall TV series weren’t reason enough to start gobbling SSRIs, the early median-age data could find all but the sturdiest broadcast executives scrambling for their Zoloft.

Through the first two weeks of the 2012-13 campaign, three of the Big Four broadcast nets are facing ratings declines of 19 percent or more. And those viewers who are tuning in are members in good standing of the get-off-my-lawn demographic.

On the ratings front, CBS has absorbed the most significant declines among adults 18-49, dropping 25 percent to a 2.4, down from the 3.2 average it posted in the first two weeks of last season. Fox fell 23 percent to a 2.4, while ABC is down 19 percent to a last-place 2.1.

Only NBC has posted ratings gains. The decision to shift The Voice to the fall appears to have been the right move, as NBC is now the No. 1 network in the dollar demo (2.8, up 12 percent versus the year-ago interval). This marks the first time since fall 2003 that NBC has been the front-runner in the ratings race for the two lead-off weeks.

NBC is also bucking the aging trend. Per Nielsen, the Peacock is currently serving a median age of 47.8 years, down 2 percent versus the first two weeks of 2011-12. Already the oldest-skewing broadcast net, CBS has aged up two-and-a-half years with a median age of 57.8, while ABC has added nearly two years to its median age (55.3, up from 53.4).

Fox has also grown a bit longer in the tooth, aging one-and-a-half years to 43.3.

As one might expect, CBS shows tend to draw a larger cohort of older viewers. Season to date, there are eight broadcast series that boast a median age of 60 years or greater; seven of these are on the CBS prime-time schedule. These include: Made in Jersey (63.6 years), Blue Bloods (62.6), CSI: New York (62.3), Vegas (60.7), 60 Minutes (60.5), The Good Wife (60.4) and The Mentalist (60.3).

ABC’s Dancing With the Stars is the only other broadcast series to surpass the Diamond Jubilee mark, as the performance and results shows average a median age of 61.1 years.

On the other side of the age continuum, Fox has bragging rights to broadcast’s youngest-skewing series, thanks to its Animation Domination lineup and Tuesday comedy block. American Dad is the dewiest show on the dial, with a median age of 29.5 years, while Family Guy (30.9), Bob’s Burgers (31.6), The Simpsons (33.4), New Girl (34.3), The Mindy Project (35.6) and Ben and Kate (37.1) are in no danger of scraping against the upper ceiling of the demo.

Spanish-language net Univision attracts the youngest audience in broadcast, with a median age of 40.4 years, although that’s up a bit from the year-ago 36.8. The CW is trending fractionally older (40.9 years), but as the network has only just begun premiering its fall lineup, its median age is statistically irrelevant.

The graying of broadcast may be a logical function of an aging American populace, but it also suggests that younger viewers simply are not tuning in to network TV. In any event, the process has paralleled Hemingway’s description of falling into bankruptcy, inasmuch as it has happened “gradually, then suddenly.”

When compared to the final numbers for the 1999-2000 season, the ABC audience has aged the most (up 12.3 years from a median 43). Fox is 8.3 years older, CBS tacked on 5.8 years to its median age and NBC apparently has made some sort of Dorian Gray arrangement, aging just 2.8 years.

While CBS has acknowledged the aging trend by making guarantees against its deliveries of adults 25-54, the 18-49 crowd continues to captivate marketers, perhaps disproportionately so. But if the early numbers for the new series are any indication, the target audience for all these televised overtures has largely tuned away.

Season to date, the seven new broadcast dramas are averaging 8.43 million viewers and a 2.1 in the dollar demo, while the eight freshman comedies are drawing 5.73 million viewers and a 2.2 rating.