Just like many of their viewers, cable-channel executives are fixated on finding a fountain of youth. From Lifetime to Sci Fi Channel, nets are angling for young viewers, because advertisers want these young consumers.
But attracting younger eyeballs is challenging, and viewers are fickle. And most cable networks are working with an older base that they must preserve. (More viewers are closer to 49 years old than to the younger end of the 18-49 spread.) It takes time to move the needle south.
Networks that cater to young viewers, such as music nets MTV and Fuse, boast the youngest median ages in prime time: 22 for Fuse and 23.3 for MTV, according to a study by Magna Global Research.
News channels skew the oldest. CNN claimed cable's oldest median age in the latest TV season, a creaky 59.6. Fox News Channel wasn't far behind at 58.3, and MSNBC, often cited as the most youthful of the three, still clocked in at a mature 52.4. Hallmark Channel and the History Channel, with Westerns and wars, have median ages above 50.
On the whole, cable's median ages make the industry look quite gray. Eighteen networks have median ages north of 50; another 11 fall between 45 and 49. Of the six broadcast networks, by contrast, only CBS, with a 52.2 median age, came in above 50 years old. ABC's median was 46.0, NBC 45.7. Fox, The WB and UPN were all in the 30s.
Says Magna Global research chief Steve Sternberg, "People have thought cable is younger, but cable reached parity [with broadcast] on adults 50+ long before the 18-34s and 18-49s."
Median age—the middle point of a network's viewers—is the kind of data that executives embrace or disparage, depending on the results.
And, while it is true that media buyers purchase ad time based on demographic delivery, not median ages, the data still has value, says Sternberg. "It gives you a competitive picture of the landscape. You can see who is getting older, younger."
The median age for most cable networks hasn't changed very much in the past two years. Radical changes show up when programming is completely overhauled. But most nets make more-subtle adjustments. Instead of overhauling their programming, they add shows with younger appeal.
The desirable result should be "an accretion of audience change over time," says Horizon Media ad buyer Aaron Cohen, "rather than anything wholesale."
That way, in theory, ratings would stay up, and the median age would come down over time. Last year, AMC instituted changes with an eye toward younger viewers. It spruced up its movie lineup with more contemporary titles and started to line up original programming. Young demos are up, and, in time, that should be reflected in the median age. Compared with the 2001-02 TV season, when its median age was 53.5, AMC's median age remains almost unchanged this year, at 53.2.
Still, some nets show changes. This season, the biggest upward swing was by Animal Planet, which added five years to its median age, from 41.7 in the 2001-02 to 46.7. Still, that is on the younger end of cable. Comedy Central saw its median age drop to a sprightly 29.4 from 33.1 a year ago, and sister Viacom net BET lowered its to 26.8 in 2002-03, from 31.7.
Some low-rated networks, like Oxygen (a 43.7 median age) or Speed Channel (47.6) look good compared with top-10-rated channels that have older median ages, such as A&E (58.6) or Lifetime (50.3). These high-rated nets are drawing young viewers but attract more from older demos.
Of course, some popular cable channels are younger. TBS Superstation has a 39.6 median age. Spike TV (still TNN at the time of the study) and ABC Family are two years younger.