LISA SIMPSON: It’s awful being a kid. No one listens to you.
GRAMPA SIMPSON: It’s rotten being old. No one listens to you.
HOMER SIMPSON: I’m a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are.
That exchange is from the episode “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacey,” which aired in 1994, when the networks’ emphasis on the 18-49 demographic had turned into an obsession. But Scott Collins of the Los Angeles times reports that this may be changing, inspired in part by the success of older-skewing shows like American Idol and the entire CBS lineup, and in part by the increasing realization that “brand loyalty” — the idea that young people stick with a product for the rest of their lives — might be a myth.
Also, the article notes that even though we keep talking about the fragmentation of the audience (because, well, it’s true), networks may have gone too far with the belief that the audience was completely fragmented, forgetting that many families still watch TV as a unit, and that when you create shows that skew younger, you may be blocking out not only the old folks but the young folks who watch with them.
As Steve Sternberg, executive vice president of audience analysis at the New York-based media firm Magna, puts it, “While demos are still important, the industry needs to move beyond them.” Sternberg believes the networks often forget that, even in an era of multiple television sets in each home, most prime-time TV shows are still watched by families. “TV has always been and will continue to be a group medium: About 80% of homes have only one set on during prime time.
For reasons the article goes on to mention, the 18-49 demo will continue to be super-important for a long time. But it is becoming clearer that networks can’t hide behind the 18-49 demo as an excuse for shows that don’t have any appeal outside of that demographic — which is one of the things that sunk the WB and UPN (and is now sinking the CW) and probably was a factor in the decline of NBC. And of course, there’s this obscure show called American Idol that’s returning for another season tomorrow night, which almost single-handedly turned Fox from the “youth” network to one that depends on a broad-based family audience to keep it afloat.