TV Audiences Are Getting Older — and the Networks Don’t Care

Though median age continues to rise, the Big Four are more concerned about winning among themselves

Last Updated: August 3, 2010 @ 9:52 PM

The Big Four broadcast television network audiences are growing older by the year, with the median age of most viewers having risen nearly 10 years in the last decade across the board.

And the networks are to blame.

And they don't care, as long as they're beating one another.

Ten years ago, ABC and NBC had a median age audience in the low 40s; today, ABC is over 50 and NBC is right under 50. CBS is the oldest-skewing network with a median age in the low 50s.

Even Fox — the once younger-skewing network — is aging. Fox's audience was in the mid-30s 10 years ago, and now it's in the mid-40s.

The data comes from TV research guru Steve Sternberg, who came up with a formula to calculate broadcast network median age in 1991 when he was at ad agency Bozell.

Sternberg says it's the way the networks are programming themselves that is causing the upward aging, and the networks think that's OK — as long as they can win the key demo races amongst themselves.

"First place is what matters," said Sternberg, who most recently was head of research at media buying conglomerate Magna, and now writes his own "Sternberg Report."

"They have found that if their median age goes up, they can still draw a lot of 18- to 49-year-olds. Fox doesn't care if its median age audience is over 50, as long as it wins the 18-49 demo race."

That's possible because a network can still have a predominant number of older viewers but win the younger demo race against the other networks — or at least be competitive. 

Case in point, CBS — the oldest network, remember — came in second in the advertiser-friendly 18-49 demo this season.

And if you take mass-reach "American Idol" away from Fox, it doesn't win the 18-49 race like it has for the past six years.

Sternberg says programming is the key: Fewer comedies and serialized dramas, and more procedural dramas, reality and game shows, are driving up the median age (see chart).

Sternberg offers some examples of how younger-skewing comedies can help keep a network's median age down.

"The median age for NBC's Thursday night comedies are all under 40, and this has helped keep their overall median age under 50," Sternberg says. "'The Office' has a median age of only 35, '30 Rock's' is 38, 'Parks and Recreation's' is 39 and 'Community's' is 40."

He said ABC could reduce its median age by adding more comedies like this past season's freshman sitcoms "Modern Family" and "Cougar Town," both with a median age audience of 43.
And he points out that while some of the CBS' comedies skew over 50, they will skew younger than all of the network's procedural dramas, which hover in the high 50s.

"While CBS' median age remains over 50, ABC has aged up, hitting 50 for the first time last season," Sternberg says. "NBC has been hovering close to 50 for a few years now. As Fox became more competitive among adults 18-49, it too has aged up, averaging one year older per season over the past decade."

Genres aren't the only thing that cause the median age to rise; as hit shows age, their audiences age along with them, since loyal viewers outnumber late joiners. 

ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," for example, had a median age of 42 five years ago, and now it's 46. ABC's "Desperate Housewives" came on the air with a median age audience of 44 and now it's 49. And Fox's "American Idol" has also aged up, growing from an initial median age of 39 to 44.

"Smart buyers look at the age of audience overall, not who won the season in a demo," Sternberg say. "But until advertisers as a whole tell the networks their audiences are too old, they won't change."

One executive at a Big Four broadcast network, who did not want to speak for attribution, said median age can be important only when a show is being developed.

"If you start with a show that you know skews older from the start, then you know it's only going to get older as it goes along," the executive said. "But median age is not a determining factor in how we make programming decisions. It's all about eyeballs. What matters most is the size of the audience, not the skew. We all want younger viewers — but we also want high ratings, and you can't get high ratings with just young viewers."

And in (sort of) agreement with Sternberg, the network executive conceded, "We won't walk away from a great show if it's going to skew older, but it has to attract a lot of viewers, too. It always comes down to ratings, not age. Median age is a factor, but in the pecking order, it's down at the bottom of the list."