Sunday, August 10, 2008

Why is the 18 to 49 demo so important?

The always informative Robert Seidman has written an article trying to explain a bit about the importance of the 18 to 49 demographic ratings to television networks. He discusses how he thinks this related to our beloved Moonlight being canceled. As we have discussed in lots of posts about ratings, the bottom line is money. You are not surprised, huh? Advertisers are willing to pay more to air commercials during shows that have a large demo share.

Many of you have been posting about Swingtown, and following its performance due to Nina Tassler's support of the program. As you will read, it is the main focus of Robert's piece.

Yellow highlights are my emphasis.

TV by the Numbers
CBS' Swingtown : Wanting to believe in Santa Claus
by Robert Seidman

SOMEDAY I may better understand the mechanics of the millennial mind. Until then I will wonder how shows like “Ghost Whisperer” keep going and a series like “Swingtown” fails to catch on. A period piece on CBS, “Swingtown” nears the end of its summer run with a dwindling audience despite all the elements that seemed to point to its potential for popularity. - Gina Belafonte in the New York Times’ piece,
Swingtown and the Heyday of Average.

I was excited to read the rest of the piece because I thought it was going to be a commentary on the state of broadcast network television programming and how shows are positioned and promoted for success. But it wasn’t. It was just gushing praise for the doomed CBS generational show, Swingtown.

I don’t think the mechanics of the millennial mind are why Ghost Whisperer is on the air and series like Swingtown don’t catch on, but rather the mechanics of the business. You can’t push a program to Friday night and blame it on the millennial generation. They are the least likely to be watching TV on Friday. But let’s face it, by the time CBS moved it to Fridays, it wasn’t hoping the show would catch on. It was merely, as they say in baseball, playing out the string.

CBS may dismiss the notion of needing to target to 18-49 year olds and 18-34 year olds, but it’s on CBS’ mind regardless of its public comments. The question is whether a show like Swingtown would appeal to anyone under the age of 40 or so. I don’t doubt that it would, but I think what’s really going on is this: shows have a very limited time to catch on with the 18-49 crowd. The networks aren’t willing to wait it out. Genre shows like
Moonlight get cancelled not because it didn’t have enough viewers, but because it didn’t have enough viewers who were 18-49 years old. If Moonlight had done 33% better in that category it would likely be back on in the fall.

It’s Not Ageism, It’s Supply and Demand

I feel obligated to write this disclaimer now anytime we right about age demographics. A lot of people cry foul at the age demos, but even though I am myself getting pretty aged, I don’t have a problem with it. Advertisers don’t want large 18-49 populations and 18-34 populations specifically because its where they want to hawk their products though in products specifically aimed at younger people that is certainly the case, as it should be. Advertisers want to reach these age demographics and are willing to pay more for them because they are far more scarce in the television world. Finding a show where you can find a large population of people in a specific age and gender are gold mines (think Grey’s Anatomy with women 18-34 and 18-49).

Reaching the 50 and over crowd is relatively easy. They watch a lot of TV, day and night, day in, day out. Availability is not scarce, and the advertisers have so many opportunities to reach that demographic in so many ways it’s less valuable to them. Because it’s harder to reach the younger demographics, it becomes more valuable to reach.

So What Was CBS Thinking?

I think CBS was believing in Santa Claus really. I understand it. It would be nice if there was a Santa Claus, the notion that such a thing could exist is very pleasing. The notion that because a show is good, and very creative and even interesting and different that just because of that it will succeed? That’s like believing in Santa Claus. Not just because of the millennial mind either but because of the nature of the way the business works these days.

A lot of the appeal of shows like Swingtown and Mad Men is just how well they nail the period they cover. I’ve yet to watch Swingtown, but I will give it a look after the Olympics and after I get caught up on Damages, Generation Kill and Weeds. But I trust the likes of Ms. Belafonte that Swingtown has captured the essence of the 1970s well. But who’s that aspect of the show going to appeal the most to? People who were alive in the 1970s! If you were even a young 18 in 1975, you’re over 50 now and outside of demos coveted by advertisers.

It doesn’t matter what the networks say publicly. Shows need to have at least moderate success among the under 50 crowd or they will fail. The leash isn’t typically long either. Shows need to score in the under 50 demos quickly. Swingtown started out OK out of the gate on Thursdays in that regard with modest success (at least for the summer) in the under 50 demographics, but then the show kept bleeding viewers.

A New Hope?

The networks actually do have the luxury of giving at least a show or two a longer leash. It’s not like the networks aren’t making money hand over fist as it is, or they wouldn’t mostly completely throw in the towel with the Friday night and Saturday night lineups. While shows like Moonlight and Jericho had a fairly sizable loyal fan base (both on the Internet and to some degree in terms of viewers) these shows struck out with the youthful demos, and they weren’t critically acclaimed.

I’m not going to fault Gina Belafonte for doing her part to save a show that she likes, I have seen several other TV critics who were digging Swingtown. I doubt in the case of Swingtown, it will make any difference whatsoever. We have two data points that suggest clearly CBS has already made up its mind on this show and is ready to move on:

It switched it to Fridays, giving Flashpoint the better Thursday night slot. Kiss of death.

It aired a *new* episode of Swingtown up against the Olympic opening ceremonies. While I’m sure not even NBC expected the stellar numbers the opening ceremonies drew, any programming executive at the other networks knew that the ceremonies would be the most-watched thing on television. That doesn’t explain why NBC Uni itself ran new episodes of Monk and Psych on USA network on Friday night, but still…

I don’t believe we need to wait for the formal announcement from CBS.

I don’t think critical praise is new hope for a show like Swingtown. Many viewers lament the “same old crap” that gets put on the air. Yay, another police, crime, lawyer, doctor procedural! I understand. But what works, works, and as long as it works, that’s likely just going to be the way it is.

A show like Swingtown needs to catch on, and catch on fast. That’s a circumstance that you’ll rarely see happen on broadcast network television, especially in the summer without a big budget for promotion.

At the end of the day, the best new hope for new, creative and different content is…cable.

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