Broadcast TV audience is aging faster than the U.S. population

The median age for viewers at the U.S. television networks is now 51. This is significant because for years, executives at the major networks said they didn’t care about viewers over 50 years old.

The risk in having a rapidly aging audience is the networks becoming less relevant to advertisers, the backbone of the commercial television business.

The broadcasters’ audience has aged at twice the rate of the general population during the past two decades, finds a new report by Baseline, an information source for the film and TV industries that is owned by “The New York Times.”

“It should be a concern, but it doesn’t seem to be a concern at the moment,” said Steve Sternberg, who wrote the report. “You don’t want to have CBS, ABC and NBC all having median ages in their mid-50s.”

Sternberg first started studying median age data using Nielsen statistics in 1991 when he was at the Bozell ad agency. At the time, ABC’s median age — the point at which half its audience was younger and half older — was 37. NBC’s was 42 and Fox’s was 29. CBS, which has traditionally had the oldest audience, was 45.

For years, these networks (except for CBS) have sold advertising based on how many people were watching in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic. Both CBS (55) and ABC (51) had median ages above that range last season, according to the report. NBC’s median age was 49 and Fox’s was 44.

Much of the aging isn’t unique to television: The median age for the American population as a whole increased from 33 in 1990 to 38 last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“You hear people saying, ‘Your audiences are older now, and you don’t have the young people you used to have in the 1980s,’” said David Poltrack, chief research executive at CBS. “I say, ‘Yeah, the U.S. auto companies aren’t controlling 80 percent of the market anymore, either.’”

A young audience has always been the Holy Grail for networks, but that’s changing, said Alan Wurtzel, research chief at NBC. Not only are more older viewers available, advertisers are starting to recognize that they spend money and are receptive to their messages. “If you try to young down your median age, you’re going to be going against gravity,” he said.

Advertisers looking for younger potential customers have more options, including the Internet and smaller cable networks. MTV (median age 23), Comedy Central (31), E! Entertainment (34), FX (38) and Bravo (42) are among the networks that have siphoned younger viewers away from broadcasters.

Among broadcasters, the small CW network specifically targets young women and has a median age of 33. Univision, the largest Spanish-language network and one with significant growth potential, has a median age of 36, the report said.