Center director Jeffrey Cole explores exciting new developments in the entertainment industry, including the realization that not everybody watching is a teenager.
By Jeffrey Cole
On the day of your 50th birthday (not the day before or after), you will receive an invitation to join the American Association of Retired People (AARP).
You will need a new friend on that day, because the day before, your lifelong friends — the advertising and media industries — will have just abandoned you.
The conventional wisdom in the advertising business is that unless you are selling products specifically for older people (Medicare Insurance or health alert systems), who you want and will pay for is an audience of 18-49 year-olds. Most mainstream advertisers trying to reach everyone — Coke, McDonalds, Tide — only want the younger demographic. While they will advertise to 35-49, the people they especially seek and will pay extra for are 18-34.
This desire comes from the belief (completely disproved) that younger people are still sampling products: once you turn 35, but especially older, you are locked into your toothpaste, deodorant, and detergent, and there is no point advertising to you.
Since broadcasters want to sell time to advertisers, they seek the programming that attracts the younger demographic. Of course, television networks are full of shows for older audiences, but they command far less revenue than the programs that attract 18-49. This is why NBC, which has seen the total audience for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon fall below that of Late Night with Stephen Colbert, still boasts that Fallon does slightly better in the “highly coveted” 18-49 segment.
After the media began to work in earnest to improve the portrayal of and content for women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, LGBTs, and others, many noticed that age was the last “acceptable” form of discrimination. That last wall is coming down.
In fairness, the massive bulge of the boomer generation has gradually pushed the upper limit of the age group advertisers care about a bit further to 55, where it seems to have stalled.
Before television, the film business used to create movies for everyone. Once television came along in the late 1940s, studios began to cater to 12-24 year olds: the most likely age group to still go out to the movie theatre when there was television at home. In 1937, the major studios released 403 films, or about one film a week per studio. When each company released 50 movies a year, some were for the entire audience, some for teenagers, some for families, and some for mature audiences.
Today, the eight major studios are now six, and they each release about 9-14 movies annually. Since so few are made, they want each film to be a blockbuster, so they make 80-90 percent for the younger audiences. These are the films that get the biggest budgets with the most bankable actors, and the best release dates.
Films for people over 50 do account for one to four films each year per studio, but they have smaller budgets, less desirable opening dates, and less expensive actors. The good part of this is that, because they have smaller budgets for special effects, they feature better scripts, stories, and actors — not movie stars.
The problems for over-50s continue beyond the difficulty of finding entertainment that appeals to them. They also rarely see people who look like them featured in lead roles in film or television, and, if they do, they are frequently stereotyped. Probably the best known older character in television today is Grandpa Simpson; the portrayal of Homer’s father and his peers in the retirement home is hardly flattering.
Behind the scenes the problem is even worse. Throughout much of film history, actresses needed to hide their age because, for a woman, working in front of the camera offered few opportunities when they turned 40. Men fared better, but still hit a wall in their 50s or 60s. Comedy writers become largely unemployable (unless they own the property) over 40. Crews are heavily dominated by younger demographics.
A linear channel can only appeal to one audience at a time. Over-the-Top (OTT) creates a new set of rules: there are no advertiser needs to cater to — the only thing Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu are concerned with is satisfied audiences renewing their subscriptions. A family of children, parents, and grandparents can all be watching programming on Amazon geared to their tastes at the same time. This is a remarkable change.
This is the way it has been from the 1940s until the last couple of years. Suddenly things are changing at a dizzying pace. More opportunities are opening in front of and behind the camera, and audiences over the age of 50 have a whole new range of choices.
Some of the hopeful developments include:
1. The Conventional wisdom has been shown to be wrong. The generation 50 and over have annual spending of $3.2 trillion and control 80 percent of the money in the country. The 18-49 audience is full of debt and has nowhere near the spending power of those over 50. And over 50s continue to sample new products and brands. Advertisers have finally figured this out.
2. As advertiser attitudes change, so do those of broadcast networks. Broadcasters can sell the over 50 audience to advertisers. They also know that over 50s are by far the heaviest viewers of linear television, less likely to stream, scan, or skip commercials. CBS has been the most consistently profitable network, year in and out, by embracing (or at least accepting) this audience.
3. Movie studios realized their audiences have changed. The evidence is clear that the current generation of 12-24 year-olds are as interested in movies as any generation that came before, but they are watching on their iPads, smartphones, and computers. At the same time, the studios have seen that the fastest growing part of the in-theater audience is people over 50. They have the time, money, and a legacy of going to the movies if there is content that reflects their interests.
4. Streaming or Over-the-Top (OTT) has changed everything. A linear channel can only appeal to one audience at a time (with a few exceptions). Sports is the only programming that still aggregates enormous live audiences. If ABC creates a show for over 60s, they are sacrificing the younger audience at that hour. If they make something for teens, they are abandoning the older audience.
One of the ways studios got around this was by creating specialty cable channels for the young (Disney, Nick, MTV) and the more mature (BRAVO, A&E). OTT creates a new set of rules: there are no advertiser needs to cater to — the only thing Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu are concerned with is satisfied audiences renewing their subscriptions.
Netflix, and Amazon can create programming for under 10s, early teens, late teens, young professionals, families, over 50s, over 60s, and over 70s. It all goes on the same channel, and the audience-specific programming does not interfere with programming for a different group. Teens can ignore the mature programming on Netflix and vice versa. A family of five — including children, parents, and grandparents — can all be watching programming on Amazon geared to their tastes at the same time. This is a remarkable change.
5. Portrayals are improving. Recognizing the power of the over 50s (and that they often are the ones paying the bill), streaming services are going out of their way to create programming such as The Crown and Grace and Frankie. Never has there been so many choices for over 50s.
Today, many of our most employable and successful actresses are well over 40: Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton, and Helen Mirren. It used to be thought that certain actors were so bankable that they could guarantee the opening of a film. At various points these actors included: Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, Johnny Depp, and Jennifer Lawrence. Today, no one seems to be able to guarantee a film opening except in the UK, where the studios know they have one guaranteed box office magnet in 83 year-old Judi Dench.
Behind the camera, things are improving somewhat as well. When Frances McDormand recently won her second Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in her acceptance speech calling for the employment of more women in film, she used the term, “Inclusion Rider.” This is an addition to a contract that ensures the production maintains diversity in front of and behind the camera. While most viewers of the Oscars probably interpreted this to mean the inclusion of women, African-Americans, LGBT and others, it also includes age inclusion as well.
After the media began to work in earnest to improve the portrayal of and content for women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, LGBTs, and others, many have noticed that age was the last “acceptable” form of discrimination. That last wall is coming down. The evolution of attitudes, better research, economic incentives, technology, and plain common sense have made real strides for this massively important part of the audience.
Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.
April 25, 2018