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Advertisers work hard for younger TV viewers

Noel Holston Newsday

Earlier this month, CBS bossman Leslie Moonves announced that his network’s fall prime-time lineup will not include “JAG,” “Judging Amy,” “Joan of Arcadia” or the Wednesday night edition of “60 Minutes.”

“We’ve taken out four of our five oldest-skewing shows,” he said, obviously pleased with CBS’ efforts to improve its standing with the coveted 18-to-49 “demo.”

Imagine Moonves telling a packed Carnegie Hall that he was dumping the shows that “skewed” blackest (we’re being hypothetical, of course, since the network is running a glaring deficit in that department), or most Jewish, or Irish-American. Widespread hisses and boos, presumably.

But the largely TV-industry audience applauded CBS’ more aggressively youthful tilt.

Viewers over 50? Let them watch PBS or the History Channel or just, oh, sit in a rocking chair and knit.

I’m exaggerating for effect here. This is a sore spot for some seniors, seniors-in-training and the management of AARP, which has run articles and ad campaigns crying foul about marketers’ increasing fixation on youth.

When I spoke to some advertising folks about the allegedly age-ist conspiracy, what I heard was that if viewers over age 50 do indeed get shortchanged, it’s because we’re too easy. We watch enough television habitually – procedural crime dramas and magazine shows in particular – that the networks can take us for granted.

Our voracity also explains why the TV commercials seem to have more varied targets than the shows – why Cadillac sells cars to the roar of Led Zeppelin’s 1971 “Rock and Roll” or Coldwell Banker touts its real estate-selling prowess with the Turtles’ 1967 “Happy Together.”

Advertisers do want to strike a resonant chord with viewers over 50 – or pushing 60, for that matter. They just don’t have to place the ads in shows full of gray-haired actors to get us.

“Advertisers will market to 1- or 101-year-old people if they think that’s who buys their products,” said John Rash, an executive vice president of the Minneapolis-based ad agency Campbell Mithun.

If 18-to-49ers get excess attention, Rash said, it’s because studies repeatedly have shown they are less likely to be locked into their brand preferences and because they are more likely to be living in larger households, complete with children.

“If you program young, you’re still going to get older viewers,” said Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming at Carat USA, a media buying company in Manhattan.

“Older viewers watch so much more television versus their younger counterparts. You want to try to get the more elusive ones because you already have the others.”

As a personal case in point, Brill said that her mother, who’s 75, is a huge fan of ABC’s “Lost,” a quirky adventure-mystery that has only one major character who’s over 50.

So if you’re over 50 and you don’t think television is doing right by you, here’s how to get more of what you want: Play harder to get. Watch less.

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