Network News 'Numbers' on the Rise

The latest numbers are in for the television news shows, and, for the most part, they are up. In the course of the last year, ABC World News Tonight has gone from 57 to 59 and The CBS Evening News from 59 to 61, while NBC Nightly News held steady at 56.

The story is the same for the prime-time news magazines. CBS’s 60 Minutes climbed from 57 to 59 and the same network’s 48 Hours from 53 to 56.

Even some of the interview programs are showing an increase. CNN’s Larry King Live, for instance, stood at 62 a year ago; the present figure is 65.

These numbers, however, do not represent the average size of the audience, but the average age of the audience. What is means is that TV news programs are failing in their attempts to attract young viewers, to which the only reasonable response is "So what?" or "Who cares?" or "Good riddance."

In ancient Greece, there was a time when men were required to commit suicide upon reaching the age of sixty. In North America, various Indian tribes commanded young men to sneak up behind their old fathers and split their heads open with tomahawks.

In the United States today, we are more humane. Rather than dispatching our older citizens to eternity, we sentence them to watch TV news programs that are all too often irrelevant to their needs and interests, focusing as they do on attracting a younger audience comprised of men and women of whom a majority do not watch TV news anyhow except at times of national calamity.

So why do the networks want these people so much? Why do they behave like moonstruck lovers lusting after the girls who play hard to get?

Several weeks ago in The New York Times magazine, Jonathan Dee explained how it all got started. He said the reason TV executives chase younger viewers is not that they make more money than their elders, and thus will buy more of the advertisers’ products—-they do not make more money; in fact, they make a lot less. The reason for the pursuit is that younger viewers are perceived as more gullible than their elders, and thus are more likely to believe a new ad campaign and switch brands.

But this, writes Dee, is simply not true. We are all equally gullible, several studies have found, or, to take the opposite point of view, all equally able to withstand a sponsor’s blandishments. The young, in other words, should be no longer be prized by advertisers simply for their youth. And the old still have more money.

Dee wrote his conclusions in an article called "The Myth of 18 to 34."

It is, however, a powerful myth, so much so that CBS seems to be blaming a recent 60 Minutes ratings decline almost solely on the age of executive producer Don Hewitt, who this past week turned 80. That there might be other factors involved—-story selection, quality of production, changing viewing patterns, competition from other TV outlets, competition from other sources of entertainment, a surfeit of magazine programs on the air—-seems not to have occurred to CBS. The ratings are down; the boss must be too old!

Even 18- to 34-year olds—-in fact, 18- to 34-year olds especially—-should resent this kind of thinking, for it is an insult to them of the profoundest variety. When television executives say they want to "get younger," it invariably means they want to get dumber—-louder and sillier and more concerned with style, less with content. In TV talk, skewing young means skewing vapid. If I were between 18 and 34, I would play even harder to get.

So, congratulations to the programs whose numbers are up. May they continue to climb. And may the networks learn to appreciate the ascent as they welcome those younger viewers who want to be treated like adults.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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