November 2nd, 2009
07:30 AM ET

50on50: Ad world's worship of 18-49 year-olds? Blame it on Dick


Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

I’ve been feeling good about the case I’ve been building to destroy the mythical status of the 18-49 year old audience “demo.” Feeling pretty darn good, until I called Turner Broadcasting’s chief of audience research. His name is Jack Wakshlag.

And if I didn’t have the resilience I’ve built up as I’ve reached these final 50 days before turning 50, Wakshlag’s analysis might have knocked me out cold. But I’m still standing. Here’s why.

The main reason I called Wakshlag was to get help tracing the roots of the 18-49 demo worship. I wanted to know who was responsible for what so many of us consider arbitrary boundaries. Wakshlag had the answer at his fingertips. Here’s the history lesson he gave me.

The Prime Mover

I was just a child. Like so many families at the time, we had one television. There was little choice. CBS, NBC and ABC. Throw in The Star Spangled Banner when the stations went off the air overnight – and you get the picture.

The conventional wisdom back then was that the most valuable programs on which to advertise were the ones that captured the most households. Age was not a factor. It was the number of households that determined the ad rate.

And then, a TV executive with his back against the wall had an idea.

ABC had the lowest number of households. But its Chairman, Leonard Goldenson, was struck by new data showing his network did particularly well among young viewers within those households. And so, Wakshlag explains, Goldenson proceeded to make lemonade out of lemons.

He crafted a pitch to the marketers that argued the conventional wisdom was wrong - that they’d find more value in younger audiences.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/11/02/dick.clark.jpg width=292 height=320]

Blame It On Dick

One of the shows that caught Goldenson’s attention first appeared on ABC’s popular local Philadelphia affiliate. The host’s name was Dick. Dick Clark. The show was American Bandstand. Hit songs and teenage dancers.

Dick Clark’s American Bandstand was a huge hit with younger viewers. One thing led to another. Goldenson figured out it would be to his network’s advantage if advertisers started comparing demos – age groups – rather than simply households.

What followed were shows like Happy Days that targeted younger viewers but won over the rest of the family as well. ABC rose to the top.

Eventually other networks imitated the Goldenson strategy.

Fox. WB. UPN. MTV. Tomorrow, who knows.

How To Dethrone A King

OK, I thought. That was then. Hasn’t a lot has changed in the past four decades since the 18-49 demo became king? 50, as they say, is today’s 40.

Aah, but one thing hasn’t changed, Wakshlag informed me. The law of supply and demand.

How does the law of supply and demand determine “the demo?”

Wakshlag says what has remained constant all these years is that the older Americans get, the more TV they watch. People in their 20s watch more than the teens do. People in their 30s watch more than the 20s. 40s more than 30s.

By the time the average American is in his or her 50s, says Wakshlag, they’re watching enough TV so that advertisers consider them fairly easy to reach.

The 50+ crowd is in abundant supply in the TV viewing audience. Therefore they’re less in demand by advertisers. An easy get.

It’s the younger demo, those who spend less time watching TV, listening to radio, reading the newspaper, who are more prized by programmers and advertisers because they’re harder to find.

Ah HAH. So it’s all about being HARD TO GET. A distressing life lesson, but one that may serve us demo-doubters well.

Playing Hard to Get

Perhaps, to be included in the KEY DEMO, those of us crossing the 50 line must become HARDER TO GET. Must we, as a generation, commit to getting off our couch potato you-know-whats?

I’m not advocating that YET. But those of you who say the 18-49 conventional wisdom is too entrenched to change it, remember this.

When ABC’s Chairman Leonard Goldenson and Dick Clark rose to the top, by appealing to younger viewers instead of overall households, they dismantled the conventional wisdom of their time.

Keep hope for a new demo alive.

Tomorrow’s Key Demo?

One more thing. Near the end of our conversation, Jack Wakshlag identified another type of viewer that programmers and advertisers increasingly covet – a viewer whose key attribute is NOT his or her age.

Join me here on this space tomorrow to find out who it is. Perhaps playing hard to get won’t be necessary.


Follow Michael Schulder's battle against getting kicked out of the 18-49 demo here

Filed under: Michael Schulder • Opinion
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate

    I think the conventional wisdom of the age groups needs redone. I may not be typical but I have found that as I get older I watch less TV rather than more. Most of the shows on tv now don't appeal to me so I would rather curl up with a good book than depend on the TV to keep me amused; plus, my life is busier and I really don't find that I have the time to spend on watching tv shows. I may tune in for a special movie and I tune in for 360 but that's about it. Will be interesting to see what the new demographics will be.

    November 2, 2009 at 9:12 pm |
  2. Justin

    Great article, thanks for the lesson. I had wondered but never done the research. @JustinMcNeil

    November 2, 2009 at 4:26 pm |
  3. Mary Lou Quinlan

    Michael, I love your rage as someone who has resented each time she's slipped off a 'cohort' border (no longer 25,34, I was okay with being in the 25-49 group until...) and who, like you, is part of a group responsible for this age devaluation. (I'm a onetime ad agency CEO and now women's marketing consultant.)

    But what bugs me more than the media dumping me off a numerical cliff is that the marketers and retailers don't even seem to want my money. Even if I'm an easy "get" by watching TIVO'd House, The Office, Glee, Miami CSI, DWTS, SYTYCD, does any show come with out initials?), I'm still outspending the younguns (young guns?) who are so hard to get. Apparel makers have abandoned us except for Not Your Daughter's Jeans, which are going gangbusters even if they do sound a little over the hill. Every tech ad assumes that we all work in cool architect's offices and wear no makeup. When's the last time you saw a car for 50plus? Yeah, the 50s when we were very, very young.

    So, we have the money but they don't act like they want it. We watch the real tube but we're a non entity demo. Hmmm. It's a good thing we are so secure, otherwise we'd start feeling like it's something we've done. LIke get older. Oh yeah, we did. But who's counting? mary lou quinlan justaskawoman.com/wsnty

    November 2, 2009 at 4:00 pm |
  4. Joanne Pacicca

    This is a great laugh for those of us over regarding the advertisers. We have most of the money!

    November 2, 2009 at 12:32 pm |
  5. earle,florida

    Keep it simple stupid (KISS) is all I can say to advertising,and whatever diviate ploys,.... used to get (the me generation, which can be used for the past four generations) tired eyeballs. Just one question to your highness,the immortal one,... have you ever bought anything you've seen advertised on TV? We'll have you? This is nothing more than a loadstone that big business uses to control all types of ( the huge advertising dollars are what floats a dead goat) media,and at a tax write-off,....nothing more,nothing less. PS. I grew-up with Dick Clark, and all I bought was the vanity of youth,...it was marvelous until I hit eighteen,..old-age?

    November 2, 2009 at 10:58 am |
  6. meenas17

    Going crazy. Ads catch everyone's attention , if they are crispy. . Ads earn revenue , when they cater to the earning poplation. So 50 , is an apt age, as you are in the peak of your career.Carry on.

    November 2, 2009 at 9:51 am |

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