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Older Viewers Must Look Hard For TV Counterparts

Jessica Fletcher, you’ll be missed next season when “Murder, She Wrote” goes off the air except for an occasional special. In the hands of actress Angela Lansbury, you were intelligent, vivacious, good-looking. And one of the few older TV series characters around.

And that’s a puzzle.

The over-65 set watches more television overall than any other age group. More viewers are older than 50 than in television’s most-targeted age group - 18-34.

Yet older viewers have a tough time finding shows involving people with whom to identify.

The Annenberg School of Communications reported a few years ago that, in prime-time commercial television, “elderly” characters accounted for 2.5 percent of the total characters shown, though older Americans represent 12 percent of the population.

What to do about this youth-crazed medium?

About a dozen years ago, a private group, the Retirement Research Foundation in Chicago, began staging annual Silver Images Film Festivals hosted by columnist Ann Landers and film critic Gene Siskel.

The foundation hands out cash and Wise-Old-Owl statuettes to encourage excellence in film, video and TV shows that goes beyond the myths about older people - programs that illuminate the challenges and promise of an aging society.

“We’re interested in improving the accuracy of the portrayal of our elders,” says Marilyn Hennessy, foundation president. “When we see only the frail, the incompetent, we forget that the aging population is diverse. We need to see those who are hale and robust as well. To get out the message that aging is not something to dread.”

One of this year’s winners was an episode of “Roseanne” dealing with the mixed emotions of Roseanne and her sister when their mother decided to move to a retirement community. They resisted the move but came to understand and approve it.

Now, if only advertisers could be persuaded to accept a more contemporary image of aging, to view their elders as an important market for more than laxatives and products to hide gray hair. If only older writers who create older characters were given a hearing.

Meanwhile, TV’s news veterans hold the fort: Barbara Walters, 64; specials by Walter Cronkite, 79; Mike Wallace and Andy Rooney, 77; Hugh Downs and David Brinkley, 75.