Monday, August 20, 2007

Nothing with a Tree: Madison Avenue's Obsession with Young Urban People

For the past thirty years or so, Madison Avenue has pursued a demographic of individuals 18 to 49 years of age, preferring those who live in urban areas the most. Given the dependence of the television networks upon Madison Avenue for their revenue (most of which comes from advertising), the networks naturally started to cater to those who were aged 18 to 49 years of age living in cities.

I am not sure how Madison Avenue decided that individuals aged 18 to 49 living in big cities were the most desirable demographic at whom to direct commercials and TV shows, but it had to be decades ago. When Oliver Treyz was president of ABC (the American Broadcasting Company) from 1956 to 1962, he constantly used demographic data to show that ABC was the network that appealed the most to individuals in the 18 to 49 age group. He campaigned for Nielsen to not only keep ratings on the number of households viewing shows, but to start keeping demographics of how old the viewers were and where they were from. Treyz argued that viewers in this age group were more likely to spend money on a variety of items. Unfortunately, I don't know if Treyz had developed these ideas on his own, or if he was simply following the ideas of the advertising agencies on Madison Avenue.

Regardless, in maintaining that demographics should have an impact on television broadcasting, he would seem to have had some influence. From the beginning of network broadcasts in 1946 well into the Sixties, Nielsen did not keep demographics on viewers.Until the late Sixties they simply measured how many households were watching any given show. And until the Sixties advertisers did not target their commercials to specific groups of people. By the late Sixties, however, all of this had changed. Nielsen started keeping track not only of how many households watched any given show, but how old those people were and where they lived. And advertisers would start creating advertising campaigns with specific demographics in mind.

Sadly, this would have an immediate impact on network television. The first sign that demographics were starting to matter in television broadcasting came in the 1969-1970 season. The Red Skelton Show had been on the air for nineteen seasons. It also ranked #7 in the top rated shows for the season. The Jackie Gleason Show had also been a mainstay of CBS for years. And while its ratings were not as high as that of The Red Skelton Show, they were still respectable. Regardless of their ratings, CBS cancelled both shows due to the fact that Skelton and Gleason's viewers were simply too old. Most likely the expense in producing both shows probably played a role in their cancellation (indeed, Red Skelton's contract stipulated that he received a salary raise each year) as well, but there can be little doubt that CBS would have dealt with the expense of the shows if they had appealed to a younger demographic. The Red Skelton Show would return that fall on NBC, only to be axed again at the close of the 1970-1971 season.

While the 1969-1970 saw demographics used as an excuse to cancel two shows, it would be the 1970-1971 season that would make it clear that demographics were playing as much of a role, if not more, than the ratings. What is worse is that the 1971-1972 season would see the implementation of the FCC's Prime Time Access Rule, issued in 1970.The Prime Time Access Rule reduced the amount of network programming that local stations could air in prime time. Whereas for most of television's history until that time the networks would air three and half hours worth of network programming (7:30 PM EST/6:30 PM CST to 11:00 PM EST/10:00 PM CST), they were now restricted to three hours worth of network programming (8:00 PM EST/7:00 PM CST to 11:00 PM EST/10:00 PM CST). The FCC believed that the Prime Time Access Rule would increase diversity on local stations, allowing them to air different sorts of shows in 7:30 PM EST/6:30 PM CST time slot. As history shows, this did not happen, as the 7:30 PM EST/6:30 PM CST time slot has been a haven for game shows and network sitcom reruns ever since. Regardless, because of the Prime Time Access Rule, the networks had to cancel many more shows than they ever had before.

Unfortunately, CBS in particular decided to rely upon demographics to decide which shows stayed and which shows left. The 1970-1971 season was the year of what has become known as "the rural purge." It was during that season that CBS cancelled nearly every one of its remaining rural oriented shows: The Beverly Hillbillies, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, Green Acres, Hee Haw, The Jim Nabors Show, and Mayberry R.F.D. Not only were shows that skewed more to a rural audience cancelled, but so were shows whose audiences were older: The Ed Sullivan Show, Family Affair, and Hogan's Heroes. At the time CBS Vice President of Programming, Fred Silverman, said of the mass cancellations, "The time has come to go big city as opposed to hayseed." Others saw it differently. Pat Buttram (who played Mr. Haney on Green Acres) commented, "It was the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it." CBS was not alone in cancelling shows because they believed their demographics to be undesirable. ABC cancelled The Lawrence Welk Show because its viewers were simply too old.

While none of the cancelled shows pulled in the ratings that The Red Skelton Show had in the 1969-1970 season, some of them were still doing quite well. Mayberry R.F.D. and Hee Haw ranked in the top twenty shows for the season. And history shows that both Hee Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show were obviously still popular. Both shows went into syndication immediately following their cancellations. Hee Haw would run for another 21 years. The Lawrence Welk Show would run in original syndication for eleven years before its reruns started appearing on PBS in 1986, where it has been ever since. Of course, I don't guess I need to mention that many of the reruns of many of the shows would go onto very successful syndication runs; The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Hogan's Heroes have been a staple of local stations and cable channels ever since.

Since that time viewers would be hard pressed to find shows meant to appeal to either rural folks or older people on network schedules. Not long after the rural purge had taken place, The Waltons was a big hit for CBS. Later in the same decade there would be The Dukes of Hazzard (a show which probably owed more to city people's stereotypes of Southern, country folk than country folk themselves--I have never liked that show). More recently there has been King of the Hill, Reba, and My Name is Earl. Shows featuring older people have been much, much rarer. Off the top of my head, I think the most recent shows whose lead characters are older have been The Golden Girls, Murder She Wrote, and Matlock.

Of course, I assume that most people would be like me in wondering why Madison Avenue and the television networks would so covet the attention of young, urban audiences. Well, there actually are reasons for it, even if I believe those reasons to be flawed. Much of it has been the view expressed by ABC President Oliver Treyz way back in the early Sixties, that young urban viewers are more likely to spend money on a variety of items. Unlike older people or people living in small towns and the country, they have less of a sense of brand loyalty; that is, they are more likely to switch brands. Another view that has consistently been expressed by Madison Avenue and the networks is that young, urban viewers have more disposable income. That is, they have more money to spend on various items. Finally, they are believed to be more likely to buy things on impulse than either older people or people living in rural areas.

The problem with this is that it doesn't seem to hold true. Indeed, I remember when I was in college being puzzled by the idea that young, urban people had more disposable income than anyone else. As a college student and later as a young twentysomething, I did not have the money to blow on items that I did not absolutely need. And it seemed to me that my fellow twentysomethings were all in the same boat--none of us had money to spare on a large array of commercial products. It just seemed to be common sense to me that people above the age of thirty, even above the age of sixty, would have more money to spend than people in their teens and twenties. What made Madison Avenue's insistence that the 18-49 age bracket was the demographic to pursue even odder is that, insofar as I know, neither Madison Avenue nor the television networks have ever conducted studies or surveys to prove any of this. It would seem that the one industry in America that thrives on studies and surveys never bothered to conduct either to prove one of their firmest convictions!

Indeed, of late there have been several studies which show what many of us already knew from common sense--the individuals who have the most money to spend are actually older. As executive vice president for research and planning at CBS, it is David Poltrack's job to keep track of those demographics important to the networks and Madison Avenue. And over the years he has concluded that Madison Avenue and the networks have been wrong in pursuing the 18 to 49 year old demographic to the exclusion of all else. Quite simply, older people buy more items than younger people. The demographic Madison Avenue and the networks should want the most is then the exact opposite of the one they do want--they should be going for the people over fifty! Currently it is individuals over fifty who have the most disposable income. In other words, rather than making commercials and TV shows for Generation Z, the advertising industry and the networks should be making commercials and TV shows for the baby boomers.

Of course, there is still the matter of brand loyalty. It could be that younger people are more likely to switch brands than older people, but to what extent I am not sure that anyone can say. In fact, I rather suspect that brand loyalty develops while people are still very young. I know that while I was still a child I determined that I preferred Coca Cola to Pepsi and Nestle to Hershey. I assume many of my readers have read about the recent study in which three to five year olds overwhelmingly identified food coming from McDonalds bags as tasting better than anything else. While I suspect that a young person is more likely to change brands than an old person, it seems to me that in both cases they are already loyal to certain brands and not that likely to change brands regardless of advertising.

So far I have simply dealt with the issue of age; there is still the matter of Madison Avenue and the television networks preferring urban dwellers to country dwellers. Just as younger people are supposed to have more disposable income than older people, so too are city folk supposed to have more disposable income than country folk. Indeed, I have even read claims that the fans of the rural shows of the Sixties could not afford the items advertised on those shows! Now I will admit, there are probably more millionaires living in cities than in rural areas, but then it seems to me that most of the commercials on network television are directed towards the middle class, not the wealthy. After all, when was the last time that an ad for Bentley or Cartier aired on prime time network television? Most of what is advertised on television are common items that nearly every American uses and can afford: soap, food, clothing, and so on. It seems to me that most of the items Madison Avenue shills on network television are as easily affordable for people living in rural areas as they are for people living in cities. There has also been the claim that people living in rural areas are less likely to change brands than people living in urban areas. Again, I seriously doubt that given how early brand loyalty is developed in Americans.

Now I suppose that there might be those who will argue that more people live in cities than in the country, moderately sized cities, and small towns, but it seems to me that this could well be untrue. Indeed, I have always suspected that even now more people live in moderately sized cities, small towns, and rural areas than big cities (or simply put, urban areas). I am not sure at what point the average American considers a city to have ceased being a moderately sized one and become a big one (that is, an urban area), but for me it happens when a city has a population of over 100,000. I will admit that to a degree for any given person what is considered "urban (that is, a "big city")" and what is considered "rural (the "country")" is largely subjective.

At any rate, to test my theory, I checked the percentage of people living in cities above the size of 100,000 to the total population of people of three different states (Iowa, Illinois, and New York). It turns out that only a little over 10% of the entire population of Iowa live in cities over 100,000 in population (not surprising, as there aren't many cities over 100,000 in Iowa). That means the majority of Iowans live in moderately sized towns (of which there aren't many in Iowa), small towns, and rural areas. Illinois has a higher percentage of city dwellers than Iowa; 28% of all Illini live in cities over 100,000 (and most of those live in Chicago), still fewer people than living in moderately sized cities and rural areas. Even in New York, home to the New York City (still the largest city in the United States), the majority of people live outside urban areas, although it is a greater number than either Iowa or Illinois. In New York 47% of the people live in cities over 100,000. This means that over half of all New Yorkers live in moderately sized cities, small towns, and rural areas as opposed to big cities.

While I will admit that my approach was probably not the most scientific (perhaps I should have checked the populations of all 50 states, although that would be time consuming), but I think it could point to a possibility that the United States is not as urban as we have been led to believe. Quite simply, it seems to me that the majority of Americans live in moderately sized cities, small towns, and rural areas, areas most people would not class as "urban." Since very few TV series in the past thirty years have even been set in moderately sized cities, let alone small towns or rural areas, I think it is safe to say that Madison Avenue and the networks have been ignoring the majority of Americans (in fact, sometimes I think that they are ignoring everyone living outside New York City and Los Angeles). Now I am no businessman, but I would think this is foolish. By creating shows that appeal to individuals living in moderately sized cities, small towns, and rural areas, both Madison Avenue and the networks could increase their revenue dramatically. Let's face it, 100 people living in a small town, with a moderate income, each buying a bar of soap will raise more money for a soap manufacturer than one person living in a big city, with a huge income, buying one bar of soap.

It seems to me that Madison Avenue's idea that those between the ages of 18 and 49 living in urban areas are the most desirable demographic is then fundamentally flawed. This would not be so sad if it was not for the fact that it has had a dire affect on network television in the past thirty years. Two of my favourite TV shows were rural shows from the Sixties (The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies), and I love King of the Hill. Sadly, rural shows on network television have been few and far between. And while I do fall into the 18 to 49 year old demographic, I must say that I have enjoyed shows featuring older people (The Golden Girls numbers among my favourite sitcoms). Of course, shows featuring older people have been ever rarer than those set in rural areas. In fact, it seems to me that Madison Avenue and the networks often skew their commercials and TV shows to the youngest people in the 18-49 year old demographic, if not younger. After all, I rather suspect that all those teen dramas that aired on the WB (now the CW), not to mention Grey's Anatomy, are not made for people my age.

Of course, all of this may be besides the point. Shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies, The Golden Girls, and King of the Hill have lasted for a reason. Quite simply, they are good shows. In fact, I rather suspect that many people living in big cities watch King of the Hill and many people under the age of 50 watch The Golden Girls. Rather than creating shows to appeal to a specific age group, then, perhaps the networks should simply concentrate on creating quality TV shows. If they are any good, then young people in urban areas will watch them, regardless of the ages of the characters or where they live.

At any rate, regardless of the impact it has had on network broadcasting, I honestly believe that in directing commercials and TV shows to people living in urban areas and between the ages of 18 to 49 is simply bad business. In targeting commercials and TV shows to people between the ages of 18 to 49, Madison Avenue and the networks have been ignoring those people who really have the disposable income to buy a wide array of items--those over the age of thirty and especially over the age of fifty. In creating commercials and TV shows with appeal to urban dwellers, they have ignored the majority of Americans, whose sheer numbers are really too large to ignore. It seems to me that if Madison Avenue and the networks want to make more money, then they are going to have to change their approach. They are going to have to give up targeting those between the age of 18 to 49 living in urban areas.

1 comment:

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