As America's first TV generation continues to age, cable programmers are faced with hard choices: Do they cater to the baby boomers through all the stages of their lives, or keep their focus on the upcoming generations as they grow into their target age group?
Because of the sheer size of its population, the baby-boom generation of Americans born between 1946 and 1964 has long held the fascination of U.S. Census watchers, demographers and advertisers.
And there's no question that TV plays a central role in boomers' collective consciousness, whether they're remembering the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, man's first walk on the moon or the funeral of President Kennedy.
"The baby boomers — especially the older segment — feel like we invented television," MTV Networks executive vice president of research and planning Betsy Frank said. "It's ours. Everything about television is an art form we created."
But in the fight for the almighty advertising dollar, some cable executives admit, even the largest generation in the country's history — and arguably its most loyal television audience — is not immune to society's infatuation with youth.
"Brand loyalty starts early," Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite executive vice president and general manager Cyma Zarghami said. "The sooner you can build a relationship with a consumer, the more likely they'll stay with you for a long time."
The standard for advertisers has been to "get them young and get them for life," said ESPN Classic vice president and general manager Mark Shapiro. But that mindset is starting to be challenged.
Of course, it's not just advertisers that networks must address in targeting their audiences. There's also the question of defining a network's brand identity over time.
"The whole notion of staying with a generation can get you in trouble if you don't stay relevant to the next generation coming up," Frank said. The so-called "MTV Generation" is probably watching CBS now, she added.
A few cable programmers — blessed with extensive content libraries, forward-thinking executives and the deal-making skills needed to obtain carriage for new networks — have the currency to place their bets on both the baby boomers and their younger counterparts.
Viacom Inc.'s MTV Networks and AOL Time Warner Inc.'s Turner Broadcasting System Inc. have both launched successful 24-hour spin-offs from channels that air classic TV programming, and both of those new entries are specifically targeted at boomers. Turner's Cartoon Network begat Boomerang, and Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite spawned TV Land.
There's certainly no dearth of programming designed to take boomers back to their roots. Cable networks show everything from old-time sitcoms and cartoons to classic game shows and even ballgames jogging memories from bygone seasons.
The focus on the boomers' growing-up years — the 1950s, '60s and '70s — isn't limited to reruns. Long-lived rock group The Bee Gees still attracted a large TV audience to its recent Live by Request
performance on A&E Network. Last month's Home Box Office original movie 61*
chronicled the 1961 home-run derby between legendary New York Yankees sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
And Lifetime Television's hit series Any Day Now
regularly includes flashbacks to the leading ladies' formative years during the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.
Some networks use classic programming to attract both boomers and their children. The tried-and-true oldies give boomer parents and their "echo" kids a safe alternative to the racier current fare found even during primetime, on broadcast outlets.
Among the more popular networks for families that like to watch TV together is ESPN Classic, Shapiro said. In fact, he added, its audience skews younger than the programmer's other properties.
BIRTH OF A BOOM-NET
Boomerang unabashedly targets the baby-boom generation, general manager Mark Norman said.
"The network is all about the shows baby boomers grew up watching on Saturday mornings — it's built around baby-boomer parents that want to share that programming with their kids."
Cartoon Network had been running some of the Hanna-Barbera studio's animated classics several years ago, when the company learned that its advertisers wanted the network to target older kids and young adults.
When that led Cartoon to develop more original programming, "we looked at the classics and the sheer volume of shows we had," and realized that there was enough of a following to support a new network, Norman explained.
Nick at Nite launched TV Land five years ago. After developing a successful relationship with boomers, Zarghami said, "We saw there was enough demand for a 24-hour network."
TV Land viewers are drawn not just to the classic TV shows, but also to "retromercials," or ads from the past, "that take them back to a simpler time in their lives," TV Land executive vice president and general manager Larry Jones said. "This really strikes an emotional cord."
Jones said parents love to introduce their children to the shows they grew up with.
"People long for the days when there was one television in the house" and they watched TV as a family, he added.
Lifetime senior vice president of research Tim Brooks said that mothers can help expose future generations of viewers to the network's programming. He likened it to the way teenage daughters became hooked on soap operas after watching them with their mothers during summer vacation.
"The core of our brand is something that, by its nature, crosses generational lines," Brooks said. "What 20-year-old and 50-year-old women have in common is the emotional connection."
Lifetime's top dramas, including Any Day Now, cross those lines of age, Brooks said. While the friendship among the two adult leads appeals to baby boomers, he said, that angle is balanced by strong story lines involving a character's teenage daughter.
Mainstream networks with a broad base of viewers have to balance the tastes of boomers against the interests of their younger counterparts.
Black Entertainment Television gave a nod to boomers with its recent '70s Soul Cinema series, which features such films as Uptown Saturday Night.
"There's almost a nostalgic feeling about the good-time '70s," BET vice president of programming Veronica Hutchinson said.
The network promoted the series with trivia contests about hot films from the '70s, featuring questions on hit songs from movies of the genre and on platform shoes and other fashions of that era.
"We're built on an intergenerational audience," Hutchinson said of BET. She added that the network tends to attract a broader audience at night than it does during the day, when it draws more teenage viewers.
AIDING MATURE MODERNS
While some networks targeted to boomers and their kids aim for the nostalgic heart strings, other programmers appeal to more pressing matters — especially for the oldest boomers moving closer to retirement age.
"People want to look forward to their futures," said Pete Haeffner, publisher of Reader's Digest New Choices, a magazine aimed at adults 50 to 64 years old. He shares the demographic with recent Modern Maturity
spin-off My Generation, which the American Association of Retired Persons uses to target boomers who don't want to be lumped into the senior citizen category just yet.
magazine is also a presenting sponsor of a newly launched syndicated cable series Active Living, which offers older boomers stories on empty nesting, travel and vacation homes.
But even networks that feature TV classics need to refresh their content to meet the demands of new adults growing into their target audiences.
"Twenty years from now, Dexter's Laboratory
might be considered as classic as Huckleberry Hound
is today" on Boomerang, Norman said.
With its focus on adults aged 18 to 34, Nick at Nite viewers don't hold the same interest in '50s sitcom Mr. Ed
as when the channel debuted, Zarghami said. This fall, the network will launch Cheers
and Family Ties, "and five years from now, it will be Frasier
TV Land, on the other hand, doesn't appear ready to let go of the baby boomers. This fall, the network will bring I Love Lucy
over from Nick at Nite, planning a 50th anniversary showing of the series' first episode in October.
"The one thing that differentiates the baby-boom generation is that as they got older, they demanded the attention they wanted to get," Jones said.
Baby boomers "aren't going anywhere," Zarghami said, echoing Jones. "They're a vibrant demographic."
Brooks suggested baby boomers might refuse to ever grow old, and take their spending habits along with them to their retirement homes.
But it's too soon to say whether boomers' favorite TV shows will live long enough to make that trip.
As evidence that the television dial no longer revolves solely around the baby-boom generation, consider this: Chicago superstation WGN announced earlier this year that it would drop its regularly scheduled airings of classic children's television icon Bozo the Clown