MBPT Spotlight: Numbers Game--TV Says Bye-Bye Boomers As a Generation Ages Out Of The Key Demo

What’s the best way to convince a baby boomer to retire? Show him how many Twitter followers his anointed successor has.

At least that’s NBC’s apparent strategy in nudging Jay Leno off the air. This April, NBC announced that 38-year-old Jimmy Fallon would replace 63-year-old Leno as the host of The Tonight Show in 2014 . While Leno remains first in his timeslot, Fallon’s 8.3 million Twitter followers and 121 million YouTube views give him access to the elusive youth audience. NBC is banking on Fallon’s social media acumen to draw a new generation of viewers—and advertisers—to the network late night.

Leno isn’t the only boomer set to make a dramatic departure from TV land next year. In 2014, the youngest of America’s baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) will turn 50, marking the first time in 50 years that the television generation is not represented within the 18-49 demo. Boomers’ mandatory retirement from demographic relevancy will come as the youngest of the millennials (1977-1996) graduate into advertisers’ sweet spot. There they’ll join Generation X (1965-1976) as society’s primary decision-makers. Meanwhile, the Pluralist Generation (those born since 1997) will comprise the entirety of the nation’s youth market.

In post-2014 America’s boomers, Xers, and millennials will butt heads with one another in the workplace, the marketplace and the political sphere with increasing frequency. These clashes will hearken back to the generational conflicts of the 1960s, but with one major difference. During the 1960s, television did its part to bridge a widening generation gap via programs that appealed to viewers of all ages. In the age of cable, DVRs and HBO Go, however, television rarely crosses generational divides. Even when we do watch the same shows as our parents or children we seldom watch them at the same time. Want to be the least popular person in your workplace? Bring up last night’s Mad Men in the break room without first announcing “Spoiler alert!” to any millennials within earshot.

We can learn a great deal about how these looming generational conflicts will unfold by looking at the off-screen intrigue that’s surrounded NBC’s flagship late-night franchise over the last half decade. Though Jimmy Fallon is too old to be a millennial himself he’s well suited to playing one in this backstage drama. Fallon’s monologues brim with the earnest optimism that defines the millennial worldview. Like many millennials he’s a multiscreen multitasker who regularly allows his attention to drift from the show he’s hosting to his MacBook. And he even gets along with his elders. Stubborn, successful and supremely selfish, Leno is the consummate boomer. But the very same qualities that have made Leno a boomer icon have also made him a pariah amongst members of television’s late-night fraternity. However, unlike some of his more irreverent peers, Fallon has shown nothing but respect for his predecessor. In fact, this past spring Fallon put to rest rumors of animosity between the two hosts by inviting Leno to join him in one of his signature musical parody bits.

Fallon’s broad comedy is the antithesis of the quirky sensibility of the last man who tried to replace Leno. Conan O’Brien’s well-documented travails as host of The Tonight Show are representative of the struggles Xers have faced throughout their lives. Much like Conan, Xers have waited patiently for boomers to cede the (national) stage to them, only to discover that their elders won’t go out without a fight. In the meantime, they’ve watched that stage grow even more crowded with the arrival of 88 million millennials. However, things are starting to look up for America’s most misunderstood generation. Xers now dominate the 35-49-year-old portion of the demo, and thus wield a considerable sway over television ratings. Though still outnumbered by boomers and millennials, Xers will set the agenda for broadcasters and their sponsors in the immediate future.

What lies beyond the demographic shifts of 2014? It’s likely that we’ll witness an awakening of generational consciousness among members of America’s four major age cohorts. Television will play a significant role in shaping this consciousness. For if the medium has lost much of its former capacity to transcend generational divides, it’s grown far more adept at fostering generational unity. In the decades to come, generational divides will supercede partisan politics, religious affiliations and ethnic ties within debates over the major issues of the day. It is not difficult to imagine that we will one day soon see the launch of a news network that covers fiscal policy, marriage equality, climate change, gun control or other hot-button topics from a distinctly millennial or plural perspective. Whatever the case, it’s clear that talk-show hosts aren’t the only ones who should be thinking about the shifting generational profile of the American marketplace. After all, no one wants to end up like Jay Leno: No. 1 at a game that’s no longer being played.

Max Dawson, Ph.D., is a former Northwestern University professor who now consults on the television industry for Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc.