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The steady glow of the Boom tube

Published October 31, 2006


It's something Linda Ellerbee can feel, like a cold breeze on the back of her neck, every time she meets with somebody from Madison Avenue.

At age 62, Ellerbee is a survivor. Her close-cropped, graying mane is a lasting souvenir from a battle with cancer 14 years ago that took her breasts and much of her hair. Her saucy, knowing attitude comes courtesy of a 13-year career in network TV news that included co-anchoring one of the smartest newscasts of the mid ?'0s, NBC News Overnight.

And now that she heads her own TV production company, Lucky Duck Productions, Ellerbee still can't get over how disinterested some advertising people are in bankrolling projects centered on the largest market around: baby boomers.

"Yes, our feelings are being hurt when we are told by television that we are too old to matter, because we have mattered our whole lives," said Ellerbee, calling from her office in New York City.

"Nobody's interested in anyone over the age of 42 anymore; it's such an odd thing:," said the producer, author and writer, now best known as host/producer of documentaries for Nickelodeon's Nick News series. "I just need for the 35-year-olds who run advertising and the 25-year-olds who run TV networks to catch up with the facts of life. We still have money, and we still watch television . . . They ought to be paying attention to us; we're their last and best hope."

Technically defined as the generation born between the years 1946 and 1964 -- demographers define generations in 18-year increments -- more than 78-million baby boomers are reaching ages previously seen as elderly and geriatric with different priorities and resources.

Consider these facts: Consumers older than 50 control half of the discretionary spending in the United States (Age Wave research); people ages 40 to 60 spend $2-trillion annually, twice the amount of those under 40 (Age Wave); those older than 50 account for 40 percent of consumer demand, control 80 percent of all money in savings accounts and own 79 percent of America?s financial assets (

As the bulge of the baby boomers teeter on the age of 49, they face a curious irony: They are aging out of the very youth-oriented advertising and marketing principles created decades ago to target them. Which means everything from TV series to magazine ads are focusing on the needs of younger consumers.But, armed with their youthful attitudes and bursting bankrolls, baby boomers are not prepared to shuffle off pop culture's centerstage without a serious fight.

"(Boomers) are always the focus of our culture and society and economy, and because of that, they have the power to shape things as they move along," said David Baxter, vice president of research for Age Wave, a San Francisco marketing research firm that specializes in older consumers. "It's a generation that has historically been transformative --  they don't just migrate through life stages, they transform them," Baxter said. "This year, as they turn 60, they have begun to transform the latest life stages and how they're portrayed.

But they face a mountain of assumptions: Older consumers don't change brands easily. Older consumers are too savvy to be swayed by peer pressure or fads. Older people aren't interested in consumer items such as fast food, fashionable clothing, electronics or entertainment. Older consumers will watch advertising messages targeted to young people, but young people won't reciprocate.

The way they weren't

Such presumptions led major advertisers to target young people decades ago, building a media establishment that valued, over all others, consumers ages 18 to 49. And nowhere was this disparity worse than in the TV industry, where older adults spend more time watching television, but still are valued less.

It's like a restaurant that gives its most loyal customer the worst table in the house. Advertising and marketing companies staffed by 20- and 30-somethings have spent their careers wooing younger consumers, who don't use media as much and don't have as much disposable income as the boomer generation.

"Researchers always asked 'When will the boomers become old and start acting like their parents'" said Sarah Zapolski, of the Knowledge Management research division at AARP. "But we were asking the wrong question. In many ways, boomers are behaving the way they've always behaved: They've always been less conservative about shopping and entertainment and fashion."

"What we're not seeing (in media) is how young we really are," said Ellerbee. ?We're not only reinventing the aging process, we're reinventing our lives. We're retiring to build houses in India or join the Peace Corps; We're not only not aging the same way, we're not looking at age the same way."

Larry Jones, president of the classic television channels TV Land and Nick at Nite, likes to talk about the pig in the python theory. The biggest clump of baby boomers --  bulging in the generation like a pig swallowed by a python ? were born in 1957, so they are age 49 right now. Next year, they turn 50 and drop off the radar screens of many advertisers.

But they'll still be spending the most money of any age group -- voting with their wallets on companies that take the time to understand and speak to them. "What you're going to see over the next five years is that it will be impossible to ignore this group," said Jones, who focused TV Land's programming on boomers last year after noting that 70 percent of the channel's audience was ages 40 to 54 -- the first generation to be quite literally raised on television.

"Boomers picked the TV shows, the movies and the stars they could relate to, and they became successful. They voted with their wallets."

But what does that mean for TV, where older characters were once embodied by old school characters such as Andy Griffith's Ben Matlock and Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher" In the game, pitching At CBS, the network builds drama casts around notable boomer actors -- CSI's 53-year-old William Petersen, CSI: Miami's 50-year-old David Caruso, Shark's 59-year-old James Woods, for example -- surrounding them with younger actors to draw younger viewers.

"They're active, they?'e involved, they're in positions of authority, mentoring and actually communicating with young people," said David Poltrack, executive vice president for research and planning at CBS, of its boomer lead characters.

They have to be at the center of the culture. You want to see them active and involved. The success of these shows helped CBS make the transition from a network known as the most old-fashioned channel to TV's top-rated network, building shows around confident boomer characters reflecting all the issues encountered by their offscreen counterparts.

“CSI was a watershed event,” said Douglas Gomery, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and an expert on baby boomers and media. “The strength of CSI is not in the storytelling, but the look . . . (which makes it) the fastest show on television, with more shots per minute than MTV. It has the look of a film, which is what boomers grew up on. And (Petersen’s Gil Grissom) is a “cuspy” baby boomer, the first generation facing a world where, all of a sudden, they’re in their 50s and they don’t think they’re old.”
Even hiring former AARP magazine cover girl Katie Couric as the face of CBS News furthered this strategy, said Poltrack, as the 49-year-old anchor boosted ratings for the CBS Evening News most among viewers ages 42 to 60 — a 41 percent bump from 2005.

“The median age of the news audience is 60, so baby boomers are essentially at the young end,” Poltrack said. “If we can get a dominant position with them, it will feed our evening newscast numbers for the next 15 to 20 years.”
Small wonder, then, that other networks tried tapping CBS’s strategy this fall. ABC cast 59-year-old Sally Field in the family drama Brothers and Sisters and 58-year-old Ted Danson (with a full head of silver locks) in the comedy Help Me, Help You. On NBC, 60-somethings Jeffrey Tambor and John Lithgow have teamed up for a midlife crisis comedy dubbed Twenty Good Years.

But results so far have been mixed. Though established, boomer-centered CBS dramas such as CSI: Miami, CSI: NY and Criminal Minds have performed well against significant competition, Twenty Good Years will vanish from NBC’s schedule on Nov. 15 — scheduled for an uncertain hiatus after just two low-rated airings.

Danson’s Help Me also is living down to its name, retaining about half the audience of the gigantic hit that precedes it, Dancing With the Stars. Given the harsh reviews both Help Me and Twenty Good Years earned before their debuts, it’s possible both shows have problems far beyond their demographic appeal.

Still, these images of rejuvenated elders go well beyond TV series. There’s a 70-year-old Dennis Hopper plugging Ameriprise Financial services; earlier this year, cosmetics giant L’Oreal Paris signed 60-year-old Diane Keaton as a pitchwoman.

And Keaton joined a distinguished crew when she signed on with L’Oreal: 48-year-old Andie MacDowell and 45-year-old Heather Locklear.
Not ready to move on

Like a giant-sized tanker trying a sharp U-turn, the media industry has struggled to chase the monied demographic aging out of its cross hairs.

Advertising and marketing agencies have used some of their older employees to staff subsidiaries focused on boomers. Other boomers have struck out on their own, creating Web sites, magazines and TV shows that speak to their generation in ways mainstream media can’t yet manage.

That’s what motivated co-founder Jeff Taylor to create a Web site celebrating those age 50 and older,

“I didn’t think there was much of a destination for this group . . . no value-oriented brands focused on the over-50 marketplace,” said Taylor, who debuted in July, drawing 230,000 people during its first month.

“We effectively live 20 years longer than our grandparents and great-grandparents,” added Taylor, 46, who coined the motto “let’s live to 100 or die trying” for his site. “We work in service jobs where our bodies are not as worn out when we hit 65. So one of my big questions to the 8,000 or so people turning 50 every day is: What are you going to do with the second half of your life?”

But what about younger generations who say the boomers have had their time at the center of American culture? Isn’t it time for the older generation to step off and let the next demographic group have its time in the spotlight?

“If I were their age, I would feel exactly the same way . . . They’re jealous,” said Ellerbee, laughing. “(But) we were always a noisy generation, and I don’t see that stopping because some people want to ignore us.”
Eric Deggans can be reached at or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at

[Last modified October 30, 2006, 21:27:02]

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