The Power of the Keys

When I was a ‘yoot’, as Joe Pesci might put it, my friends and I had an expression for the one among us who was doing the driving on a given evening.  This person, we said, had “the power of the keys.”   The driver, it was tacitly understood, determined where we went – and when. The driver, in other words, had final say over that night’s entertainment.

America’s ‘yoots’ have had “the power of the keys” over ad-supported television for a half century.  Advertisers prize young audiences –particularly 18 to 34-year olds – because, among other reasons, they seek life-long brand relationships with consumers.

At first glance, this week’s network upfronts suggest nothing has really changed.  TBS advertised its lineup in The New York Times business section, “We Don’t Just Create Great Comedy, We Create Young Fans.” Fox’s 2011 fall lineup underscores its efforts to remain the champ of the youth demo.

Some industry watchers, however, think they are starting to see a shift in advertiser outreach strategy, away from a younger to a chronologically more inclusive viewer base.  The Times recently noted that Kellogg’s, Skechers and 5-Hour Energy drink are targeting the over-55 crowd, and that the networks are unveiling more shows with a broader audience appeal.  Alan Wurtzel, the president of research for NBC Universal, told The Times the network was mindful of Boomers when putting together its new fall programming. For example, NBC has renewed Harry’s Law, starring 62-year old Kathy Bates, and is launching Playboy, which, like Mad Men, appeals to 1960s nostalgia.

Meanwhile, Nielsen made news when it announced that the percentage of American households owning televisions dropped for the first time in 20 years.   One main reason:  Young audiences prefer accessing their entertainment via Internet alternatives such as Netflix . So as 78 million Boomers age, they are being joined in front of the TV by a shrinking percentage of viewers from succeeding, smaller generations.

In 2010, the CW began a concerted effort to follow young viewers to the Internet.  This year, Variety reports, CW’s “convergence of screens” approach is paying dividends, as viewers seem willing to consume advertising online.  According to the article, about 94% of the CW’s online ads are being watched to conclusion.

So will the networks start paying more attention to older viewers?  It seems so.  Will the networks continue to put young audiences in the driver’s seat?  It seems so – as far as the broader entertainment universe is concerned.  But targeting of audiences will have to become more, well, targeted.

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