Cable networks have baby boomers' interests at heart.
For the last few decades, this influential demographic has
dominated American culture, including television programming. And as the first of these
baby boomers move into their 50s, their importance on cable programming is as strong as
Many programmers said they do not specifically target baby
boomers, but since most boomers fit into the prime 18- to 49-year-old or 25- to
54-year-old demographics that are preferred by most advertisers, boomers are, by default,
the biggest part of many cable-network audiences.
For most networks, baby boomers are a double-edged sword.
Shows appealing to them attract upscale, affluent audiences and help to build ratings by
capturing this large demographic. At the same time, however, most networks want to attract
broader audience demographics in order to compete with the reach of broadcast networks.
Boomers have been "the pig in the python,"
explained Ellen Oppenheim, a media director at Foote, Cone & Belding in New York,
referring to the disproportion number of people belonging to the demographic. Because of
their numbers, she said, they have been a big part of the American television audience.
Baby boomers are specifically defined as people born
between 1946 and 1964. They now range in age from 33 to 52 years old.
While boomers now capture the lion's share of
attention from cable programmers and advertisers, their influence is in doubt. The oldest
of them have reached 50 and, within 10 years, the majority will have passed this
demographic milestone. Cable programmers were uncertain if boomers' appeal will
continue as they age.
Executives said boomers' interests are as wide-ranging
as the population as a whole, but as they grow older and build disposable income, certain
topics are gaining momentum, including health, personal finance, education, and travel.
Addressing such specific interests plays to cable programming's strengths, Oppenheim
Travel Channel runs shows that appeal to boomers' less
traditional interests in travel, such as adventure travel. In the third quarter of this
year, it launched a new program, Wild at Heart, which features people who travel as
a lifestyle. The network also airs Lonely Planet, which focuses on adventure
Travel believes that it has a natural appeal to boomers who
now have more money and time to spend on traveling.
Jay Feldman, senior vice president at Travel, said his
network is steering away from older viewers and trying to attract viewers from 35 to 55
years of age -- nearly identical to the age range of baby boomers. He said the
network's previously older skew to people over 50 was not a broad enough audience.
Knowledge TV is another network that squarely targets baby
boomers. Not only does it address boomers' interest in education, but it does so
about topics focusing on health and personal finance.
Bob Jones, vice president of programming at the Englewood,
Colo.-based subsidiary of Jones Education Networks, said the network has completely
revamped its lineup to be more general-interest, but with its slightly older skew of 30-
to 60-year-olds, it ends up targeting many programs directly at boomers.
The network, which previously focused on airing academic
instructional courses, will finish its three-year transition to broader-ranging how-to
programs on health, technology and personal finance at the end of the year -- the leading
topics of interest for adults over 21 years old, according to a survey conducted by the
But like most of his peers, Jones prefers to keep boomers
at arm's length. He explained that although his network has many programs of interest
to boomers, it also offers content that is appealing to many other demographic groups.
"I wouldn't go so far as to say that we're a
boomer network, but many of our programs are very relevant to that demographic,"
Baby boomers also provide a huge boost to such networks as
Home & Garden Television. According to an independent study paid for by HGTV, baby
boomers make up 50 percent of the population of "home enthusiasts," while only
accounting for 37 percent of the overall U.S. adult population. This fact is not
overlooked by HGTV programmers.
"If you're asking if the boomer bubble is on our
minds when we program, it's an absolute yes," said Ed Spray, executive vice
president of HGTV. "We look at the baby boomers as one generation that we program
for, but they are dead-center in what we do."
HGTV reaches boomers with such shows as The Good Life,
which profiles people who have undertaken midlife career or lifestyle changes; and Vacation
Living, a program targeting the more affluent and older boomer segment considering
Other leisure-based programmers, such as Speedvision and
Outdoor Life Network, said they prefer to create shows focused on an interest, rather than
a demographic. But sometimes, the two coincide, as is the case with Speedvision's American
Muscle Car program, which covers topics related to the cars that were prevalent in the
1960s and 1970s, when boomers were growing up.
Roger Werner, CEO of Speedvision and Outdoor Life, said the
networks more often "fine-tune" programming to attract baby boomers, rather than
altering content. The networks will use on-air talent with "a little gray hair,"
use older music that is familiar to 40-year-olds, or schedule programs to reach boomers
when they are home.
Baby boomers can certainly make a difference for a network.
VH1, for example, has invigorated its network by creating more programming focusing on
boomers, rather than on just a general audience interested in easy-listening music, said
Audrey Steele, a senior vice president of strategic resources at Zenith Media Services in
Bill Flanagan, editorial director for VH1, said his network
did not specifically decide to target boomers when it changed its programming more than
two years ago, and for most shows, the network does not look for subjects that are
specifically appealing to boomers.
"Three years ago, no one said, 'Let's go
after boomers,'" he said.
Nevertheless, Flanagan added that about one-half of his
network's audience fits into the baby boomer demographic, even though it concentrates
on catering to the music interests of a 32-year-old.
Flanagan said interest from boomers in VH1 varied from show
to show and topic to topic. Concert specials featuring singers who baby boomers listened
to when growing up have generally proven most popular, such as a special starring The
Beach Boys, Endless Harmony, or a Legends of Rock show featuring Curtis
Such programming has helped to contribute to VH1's
recent success, Flanagan said. Its second-quarter primetime ratings were up 67 percent
from the same period in 1997.
Like VH1, boomer interest in shows on A&E Network
varies from topic to topic. Boomers watch shows covering subjects that were important to
them when growing up, said Michael Cascio, senior vice president of programming for
For example, A&E has found Biography shows on Ho
Chi Minh, Bob Dylan and Colonel Sanders to be good draws for boomer viewers.
And the episode on 1950s television stars Ozzie and
Harriet, which ran this past June, was A&E's highest-rated Biography show
But reaching the baby boomers isn't always what one
might expect, Cascio added.
"It's not just about running footage of
Woodstock," he said.
For example, a Biography on Benjamin Spock -- the
famous author on child rearing, who came into prominence in the 1960s -- didn't
gather strong ratings, Cascio said.
Baby boomers are now the apple of many cable
programmers' eyes, but it is unclear if this demographic will lose its appeal as it
Historically, few programmers or advertisers have shown an
interest in audiences over 50.
"Overall, there's still very much a youth
movement in television," Steele said.
Bill Croasdale, a media buyer with Western International
Media in Los Angeles, said advertisers will likely try to reach retirement-age boomers the
way that they reach older viewers now: through a mix of shows targeted at younger
demographic groups. If a show targets 25- to 54-year-olds, for example, it is likely to
pick up a group of those over 60, as well.
"There are very few clients that have 50-plus target
demos," Crosdale said. "And there are very few networks targeting those older
demos, because that's not what is driving the business."
But Jones said that if any demographic group can change the
way that the television industry treats older audiences, it is the baby boomers.
"There's just too much money and too many people
in that demographic to ignore," Jones added. "I think that the perception that
the over-50 demographic is undesirable will be changed in the next 10 to 15 years."