August 9, 2022

A Demographic Gray (or Graying) Lures TV Industry

“We were thrilled to be nominated, we really were,” said Kevin Donnellan, chief communications officer of AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. “To receive this kind of recognition and this kind of nomination against the formidable talent that we were up against was something that we viewed with great pride.”

David Pepper, the executive producer of “My Generation,” said that the contest between TV veterans and his show, which has a full-time staff of just four people, was something of a David and Goliath battle, adding, “I think it really is a testament to how far we’ve come in a short period of time.”

On the air since 2008, “My Generation” is a rarity. In an industry where youth often translates to profit, the show stakes out an audience far from the 18- to 34-year-old spectrum that advertisers and television executives typically crave. Instead, the 30-minute show, hosted by Leeza Gibbons, is meant to appeal to an older population, with health and wealth tips — Martina Navratilova on improving posture, say, or investment strategies from Jim Cramer — and profiles of high-achieving people or celebrities, along with segments on Alzheimer’s, care-giving and strokes.

“ ‘My Generation’ is unique,” said Jack MacKenzie, president of the generational strategies division at Frank N. Magid Associates, a media research and consulting firm. “Not many informational programs specifically target 50-plus with their content,” he said in an e-mail. “In fact, can’t think of any.”

“I don’t know if they’re underserved,” Mr. MacKenzie added in a phone interview, speaking of viewers over 50, “but they’re certainly underrespected.” While the 18-49 demographic is the currency against which most television advertising is sold, “50-plus viewers watch more TV than anybody.”

The idea for “My Generation” was born several years ago, in AARP’s headquarters in Washington. “We have an enormous amount of content,” Mr. Donnellan said. “It’s one of the things that we know our members come to AARP for.” In an effort to reach more people, the group decided to broaden its brand from publications (like its signature, AARP the Magazine) to television. There was already a studio in its offices, and magazine cover subjects like John Leguizamo made for a natural crossover to television profiles. AARP also created “Inside E Street,” a program focused on politics and current affairs, at the same time. Both originally ran on a cable channel before moving to PBS, where the viewership skews older; they are now broadcast in 70 percent of PBS markets.

Mr. Donnellan explained that AARP wanted to move into TV “to show the industry that there’s interest, there’s a market and it could be lucrative for them.”

“This is a population with a fair amount of disposable income,” he continued. “Contrary to the old stereotype that older people are brand loyal, that’s not necessarily the case. The bottom line is, the 50-plus are watching TV and buying products and services, and advertisers ignore that at their peril.”

Ms. Gibbons, who is 54, came on as a host of “My Generation” this year. “It’s not surprising that AARP is interested in making sure the voices and faces that represent them accurately reflect what it means to be 50 or better in our culture today. I think I am a pretty good example of what that looks like,” she wrote in an e-mail from her honeymoon in Italy. She added that “being older doesn’t necessarily come with admission into the ‘sage and serene’ club,” and that inspiration can strike at any age.

“We are all living longer,” she said. “I expect to be 100, so here I am at the halfway point. A lot of life has come before, and now I get to look at the second half more on my own terms.” That, she said, is what “My Generation” tries to address.

For AARP there has always been the built-in marketing hurdle of acknowledging aging. It’s what the organization calls “getting the dreaded letter,” Mr. Donnellan said, “from the C.E.O. of AARP, saying happy birthday, you’re now 50, please join the AARP. People dreaded that letter.”

To combat that, AARP has started a campaign with Betty White, the M.V.P. of aging, inviting people to “get over it.” (A year ago, AARP also began a regular segment on the “Today” show, “Your Life Calling,” with Jane Pauley.) “My Generation” also includes segments with people who are not AARP age, like Brooke Shields and Daisy Fuentes.

“It’s not about the number,” Mr. Pepper said.

For youth-oriented Madison Avenue, though, it has been. When the last of the baby boomers reaches 50, in 2014, the stigma of catering to that market may fade for the TV industry, Mr. MacKenzie said. In the past few years, there has been a slow shift by broadcast networks — like CBS, which traditionally drew older viewers, and NBC, which has recently researched the spending habits of what it calls “alpha boomers” — to convince advertisers that an older audience is worth paying for and indulging. That quest may be helped by the habits of the generation that grew up in front of the tube.

“Boomers will watch TV — I don’t want to say no matter what you put in front of them,” Mr. MacKenzie said. “But to see themselves represented in TV, they’ll like it.”

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