TV Networks’ Last Best Hope: Boomers

This coming week, as the network fall television season gets underway, ABC will begin airing “The Golden Bachelor,” a spinoff of “The Bachelor” that centers on an offbeat twist: The main contestant is a 72-year-old man, and the 22 women vying for his affection range in age from 60 to 75.

On Sunday nights, the network will carve out three hours for “The Wonderful World of Disney,” a television tradition that dates back to the 1950s. On Tuesdays, there’s “Dancing With the Stars.” On Wednesdays, there will be special prime-time episodes of decades-old standbys like “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”

It’s no secret that network television ratings have plummeted in recent years as viewers have fled prime-time lineups in favor of stream-at-your-leisure outlets like Netflix and Hulu.

But there’s one notable exception, a segment of the audience that has effectively become the broadcast networks’ core constituency: people over 60.

The median age of viewers at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox has ballooned in recent years. That has left executives looking for ways to acknowledge and nurture an audience that still reliably flips on the television and watches in prime time, the old-fashioned way.

“Boomers are keeping it afloat,” Kevin Reilly, a veteran programming executive who held top jobs at Fox and NBC, said of network TV.The generation, he said, “grew up with organizing their worldview around it — the TV was the center of the living room, and we watched day-and-date.”

This is a critical time for the networks. They are a shell of what they used to be, and no longer the reliable hit factories and cultural forces of yesteryear.

Hollywood’s writers’ and actors’ strikes have only made matters worse. The strikes have grounded production for months, forcing the networks to program a piecemeal lineup of reality series, sports, games shows and repeats for the next several months.

Entertainment executives are privately fretting about a ratings collapse — not to mention further migration to streaming — without the vital aid of new scripted original programs.

Just nine years ago, the median age of most top-rated network entertainment shows ranged from the mid-40s to early 50s — it was 45 for the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” and 52 for “The Big Bang Theory,” according to Nielsen. Some shows, like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” had a median viewer as young as 39.

But in the most recent network television season, which ended in May, the median viewer was older than 60 for most entertainment shows, including “The Voice” (64.8), “The Masked Singer” (60.6), “Grey’s Anatomy” (64.1) and “Young Sheldon” (“65+,” the highest range that Nielsen provides).

From left, John Legend, Blake Shelton, Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande in “The Voice” on NBC.Credit…NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty Images
Iain Armitage as Sheldon Cooper in the CBS show “Young Sheldon.”Credit…Bill Inoshita/CBS Entertainment, via Associated Press
Chandra Wilson, right, and Ellen Pompeo in a scene from ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”Credit…ABC, via Associated Press
A scene from “The Masked Singer” on Fox.Credit…Fox, via Getty Images

Local television stations have seen similar trends.

“There is a quite distinct generational divide for local broadcast viewing at the age of 45,” according to a recent report from TVREV, a research group. “Generation X and boomers (those 45+) still cling to TV habits they developed as kids, while their kids largely reject local linear broadcast.”

Executives said in interviews that the median age for many of these series was younger when their viewership was measured on the networks’ affiliated streaming services like Hulu, Peacock and Paramount+. Some shows have median ages that are 20 or 25 years younger than they are on broadcast, they said. The ABC hit “Abbott Elementary,” which has a viewer median age of 60.5 on broadcast, is also popular with younger viewers when it is streamed on Hulu.

Some executives also point out that younger viewers are not adequately measured by existing viewership tools.

“Anyone we’re not capturing on a linear device we are capturing on streaming,” said Radha Subramanyam, the chief research officer for CBS.

Still, she added: “At CBS, we love older viewers. They watch a lot of television. And advertisers love them because they have tons and tons of spending power.”

Even so, advertisers still value television audiences under the age of 50. David Zaslav, the Warner Bros. Discovery chief executive, said this month that as much as 75 percent of the audience of his cable networks was over 54 and that, as a result, the company was not making as much as it could from advertising.

Dick Wolf, a leading purveyor of procedurals, one of television’s classic genres, is a big presence for CBS’s usual lineup (“FBI,” “FBI: Most Wanted,” “FBI: International”) as well as NBC’s (“Law & Order: SVU,” “Chicago Med,” “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.”). Last year, NBC brought the original “Law & Order” back to life, starring the 82-year-old Sam Waterston.

Last year, NBC brought the original “Law & Order” back to life, starring Sam Waterston, who’s 82.Credit…Peter Kramer/NBC, via Getty Images

Other scripted series also come from an earlier time, including NBC’s “Quantum Leap” and “Magnum, P.I.” — which, unlike most of the network’s competitors, will have new episodes this season because they were taped before the strikes. CBS is resurrecting “Matlock,” a show that “The Simpsons” used to lampoon for its older fan base. (The new version of “Matlock” will star Kathy Bates and appear after “60 Minutes,” sometime after the strikes are resolved.)

Last year, NBC found a surprise hit in “Night Court,” the sitcom that debuted nearly four decades ago. (“Night Court” and “Quantum Leap” first appeared on the same night on NBC’s schedule in 1989.) A producer for “Night Court” said this year that the courtroom for the new show was “not filled with tons of computer screens or modern trappings of life — we really intentionally wanted ‘Night Court’ to feel like a place a bit frozen in time.”

At ABC, executives decided to move “The Golden Bachelor” to an 8 p.m. slot on Thursdays, after the network had originally slotted it for Mondays at 10 p.m. One of the reasons: broad enthusiasm for the show as well as a strong lead-in from “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”

In “The Golden Bachelor,” the main contestant is a 72-year-old man, with the 22 women vying for his affection ranging in age from 60 to 75.Credit…Craig Sjodin/ABC

“We have an affiliate lead-in that has a median age around 67 or 68, which is smack dab in the middle of that traditional sort of definition of what a baby boomer is,” said Ari Goldman, the senior vice president of content strategy and scheduling at ABC Entertainment. “We’re going to be leaning into that abundance of audience that we have going into prime time.”

And, of course, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” will have their own night to shine, with special prime-time celebrity editions on Wednesdays.

“These are shows that have been staples for the older audience for four or five decades — I think ‘Jeopardy!’ is even going to be hitting 60 years old in some form or another this coming year,” Mr. Goldman said. “These are shows that our audience has grown up with, and they’re comforting and sort of throwback programming for that audience.”

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