Although it might seem as if all popular culture were aimed at capturing the ever-fleeting attention of 14-year-olds, a recent study says otherwise, at least when it comes to TV. The report, released last month by Baseline Inc., showed that the median age for the major broadcast networks is a staggering, and comparatively doddering, 51. The vast audience that keeps “Dancing in the Stars” on air? Median age 60. In other words, old. Too old, conventional ad sales wisdom goes, to bother selling anything to. This is bad news, it would seem, for network executives who desperately need those shrinking ad revenues.
While this information might be a revelation to those who consume, or work in (or feel bombarded by, or shun), mainstream media, here at PBS we merely shrug and get back to the entertaining business of appraising antiques. We’ll see your median age 51, and we’ll raise you 6 years and a gift basket filled with Civil War memorabilia.
Freed of ad revenue woes, PBS doesn’t have to worry about – can, in fact, embrace — the aging of its viewers. Right? The reality is that whether supported by ad revenue or corporate underwriting or subscriptions or grants or venture capital or trust fund or cookie jar, a media entity has to evolve and adapt to changing interests, tastes and, perhaps above all, technology. It simply must. Evolve or perish. (Something I learned watching “Nature.”)
“The problem is our audience is literally dying. The average age is 55 years old. If we don’t reach the youth market, we’re finished!” said Richard Smith-Jones, who is not a PBS executive, nor the new president of ABC entertainment. He’s the head of the fictional Shakespearean theater festival at the center of the hilarious and tragically short-lived Canadian TV series “Slings & Arrows” — a series I happened to be rewatching the night before I read about the Baseline report. With theater subscribers on the wane and a multimillion-dollar shortfall on the books, Smith-Jones turns to the avant-garde marketing firm Frog Hammer (!) to rebrand the struggling festival and try to reach new audiences.
But the new campaign is a series of aggressively offputting billboards decrying the decrepit state of the theater festival, quoting its worst reviews and telling its aging subscribers to … shuffleboard off. “The truth is the new lie!” the marketing guru exclaims.
Not surprisingly, the campaign doesn’t go over well. The subscribers begin canceling in droves.
“There will be hostility, lots of hostility,” the guru says with glee, while standing before an ad poster showing a mountain goat sticking its tongue out and the slogan “Screw you.” “We will know this is working when the very people who are most invested in the old festival, people like you, are burning with fury!”
By that definition, the efforts to shake things up at PBS by means of a new newsmagazine called Need to Know – combining kick-ass broadcast journalism with a new online experience, and a touch of irreverence and wit — are working smashingly well! Hooray.
Put it this way. If, while the flustered “Slings” secretary was fielding irate patron voice mails, she’d happened to hear one complaining, “You’re no replacement for Bill Moyers!” I probably wouldn’t have blinked. It’s where we lived in the early days of Need to Know.
The dramatic irony of what’s unfolding on “Slings” is that we, the viewers, know the play being rehearsed alongside this silly marketing saga is going to be something truly worth seeing. It’s the ever-cursed Macbeth, and the production is fraught with accidents, differences of opinion and even a literal ghost – the director (host?) who came before. But we know it will be great. Even when the unprepared understudy stumbles onstage, we know. For all its frays, the fabric of the play is beautifully intact.
And the half-full theater knows it.
“Your new audience is on a different buying cycle,” the guru assures Smith-Jones, but “when they come, they will come in hordes.” The final joke (at the risk of spoiling it) is that they do come. In hordes.
Our triumphant punchline is still unfolding here — and perhaps that can be said for many across the media spectrum who are struggling to shake off the traditional assumptions about demographics, revenue, reach and platform. And do good work in spite of the metrics frenzy — and the specter of the past. In the meantime, if you’re not yet watching Need to Know, that’s OK. But maybe take a break from “Dancing with the Stars” and put this Canadian series at the top of your Netflix queue. It’s great TV for all of us, 31, 51 or 71. And screw you!