You probably knew this in your heart of hearts, but now there are statistics to back it up: the median television viewer is now older than the coveted 18-to-49 age group.
Though I’d always thought of CBS as a much older-skewing network than the others, it turns out that the differences aren’t very large; the typical CBS viewer is 54, but ABC is 50 on the nose and NBC is 49. Fox has been skewing older every year, but is still younger-skewing than the original three networks, largely because it still has a few shows with very young viewers — especially Family Guy and American Dad, which explains why Fox recently signed Seth MacFarlane to a huge contract: he’s one of the few people in television who has a proven ability to attract youthful viewers.
All of television is skewing older, of course, and it’s likely to continue this way, in part because young viewers are splitting their time between TV and other forms of audio-visual entertainment (including the viewing of television programs, or television clips, on websites and downloads). I think the networks may actually, secretly, understand that. The era when networks pandered to young viewers and tried to clear their schedules of anything that skewed older appears to be pretty much over; networks now seem to be a little more willing to embrace an older-skewing show than they were a few years ago. Though of course a show that is popular with young viewers remains very precious to network execs and advertisers; Scrubs‘ youth appeal helps explain why it’s had such a long run despite so-so overall ratings, and why ABC was willing to pick it up. But judging a show by how it did in the 18-49 demo is almost pointless now; that’s not where most of the viewers are, or where they’re going to be.
Update: I should probably add here that even with the aging of the audience, the focus on 18-to-49 by networks isn’t completely illogical. The question is not “what age group is most likely to watch TV?” but “what age group is most likely to buy the products advertisted in the highest-priced commercials?” The networks and advertisers decided some years ago that the least likely people to buy those products were children and retirees, and accordingly started getting rid of kid-friendly programming (in prime time anyway) and of older-skewing shows. Of course, in today’s fragmented viewing universe and… let us say… erratic economic situation, the problem is that treating ages 18-49 as a unified viewing bloc no longer makes any sense at all.