For evidence of how ambivalent television can be about baby boomers, consider the story of Hot in Cleveland star Wendie Malick. • At 61, she's at the heart of the boom generation, defined as those born between the mid 1940s and the early '60s. And she's a bona fide TV veteran, with key roles in sitcoms ranging from HBO's Dream On in 1990 to NBC's Seinfeld, Frasier and Just Shoot Me!
Before she landed in the oasis of Cleveland's success in 2010, her agent advised her to look through scripts for male roles she might want to play, figuring they could ask writers to change the gender.
Because, for women of her certain age in Hollywood, pickings were seriously slim.
"It was getting to be a very bleak landscape," said Malick, who started in the early '70s as a model for the Wilhelmina agency. "We're talking, no characters over age 40. Which is why we feel vindicated (by Cleveland's success). It reminded people of all ages how interesting women of a certain age truly are."
Even as some celebrate the success of certain boomer icons on TV — 63-year-old Steven Tyler captivating the kids on American Idol or 60-year-old Mark Harmon leading TV's highest-rated scripted show, NCIS — there's evidence the story is more complex.
While some older stars have found new, visible roles on television, there's also evidence that TV is turning away from baby boomers as the youngest of them begin to age out of the typical group television always has focused on: viewers 18 to 49.
According to figures from the performers' union AFTRA, from 2009 to 2011, just 36 percent of TV roles covered by their contracts were filled by a character over age 40 (AFTRA contracts cover about 80 percent of TV productions). For female characters over age 40, that number dipped to 12 percent.
It's worse for women this TV season. Among the shows airing on network TV as the new season started last fall, AFTRA found just 8 percent of roles went to women older than 40.
This occurred in the year the youngest boomers turned 47. How could perception and reality be so different? The 2010 U.S. Census lists those over age 40 at 46 percent of the population; women over 40 are 24 percent.
"I harken back to the days when The Golden Girls was successful on TV, and it seemed all of a sudden, more women over 40 were getting work," said Ray Bradford, national director of equal employment opportunities for AFTRA.
"In fact, when you look at the hard numbers, women over 40 are still facing a tough road," Bradford said. "There may be some performers who are working, and that's great for them. But there's still an issue; there's still a bias."
But besides Malick — who now appears in a show featuring 90-year-old Betty White, 51-year-old Valerie Bertinelli and 50-year-old Jane Leeves — there seem to be few big names available to discuss the issue openly.
Representatives for 60-something actors Kathy Bates, Ted Danson, Tom Selleck and Craig T. Nelson all declined interviews for this story.
"Normally, we get the adjunct roles: friends, judges, whatever," Malick said of boomer actors. "On this show, we get to be the center of the universe; the young people come visit and they have to leave. We're not giving up our chairs to anybody else."
A perception problem
Mike Royce, who co-created the TNT show Men of a Certain Age with sitcom star Ray Romano, learned a little about TV's tortured relationship with boomers while writing their show, which focused on three close friends who all turned 50 in the course of the show's two seasons.
He doesn't blame ageism for the show's cancellation earlier this year or its inability to find a new home when TNT put it down after two seasons. But he saw how TV's tension with boomer subjects played out as they struggled to retain younger viewers who tuned in expecting another funny Romano sitcom.
"Right away, guys in their 20s were saying, 'No, thank you. Don't need to see that yet,' " said Royce, laughing. "I think a lot of those people didn't even try it. People would constantly classify these guys as losers who want to kill themselves . . . but they're guys leading normal lives, having normal feelings about things."
Even as today's boomers lead vastly more unsettled and active lives than the generations before them did at their ages, younger audiences have a tough time accepting the change.
NBC ratings expert Alan Wurtzel coined the phrase "Alpha Boomers" to describe these folks, between age 55 and 64, at the heart of the baby boom and living life very differently from their predecessors.
Statistics from the Nielsen Co. show this group is just as likely to switch consumer brands as younger people, spends more time online than teens and early 20-somethings and has a comparable buying rate.
"Old is not old anymore . . . every seven seconds, someone turns 55, and they're more likely to be a first-time parent," said Steve Lanzano, president and CEO of TVB, a trade association which represents all local TV stations across the country. "They've got $2 trillion in disposable wealth and they don't think of themselves as old."
The problem: Younger generations still see them as old. And that's who the big broadcasters cater to.
"(Younger viewers) don't want to see things that remind them of advancing age," said Lanzano. "They like nostalgia, but without the gray."
That's one reason why this fall's crop of new shows featured two new series focused on the early 1960s — ABC's Pan Am and NBC's The Playboy Club — allowing producers to cast young actors in nostalgic settings. Alas, Playboy Club has been canceled.
ABC's hit comedy Modern Family isolates 65-year-old Ed O'Neill among a cast filled with younger actors; his wife is played by 39-year-old Sofia Vergara.
So even as more Americans live more active lives in their older ages, TV portrayals haven't quite caught up.
"When my dad was 45, I was 21; I'm age 47, and I have a 9-year-old," said Royce, now writing scripts for two new shows on other networks. "It's a different life that's stretched out now. It just feels like that age 49 boundary . . . it seems silly they're not pushing it more in TV."
Addicted to youth
What may be oddest about TV's struggle with baby boomers is that, since its earliest days, the medium seemed designed for them.
As Syracuse University professor and TV expert Bob Thompson noted, television launched as a major consumer product at about the same time the baby boomers themselves launched in American society, with the technology growing to maturity right alongside the kids who swooned over the Beatles and danced to American Bandstand.
"You think of Little Ricky on the cover of the first TV Guide in 1953," said Thompson, describing how the magazine showcased the son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, a child whose birth was a major plot point on their popular '50s-era TV show, I Love Lucy. "He's like the crown prince, not only of TV but of the baby boom generation. Now, we're at the point where you ask, 'Do we continue to follow that boom?' "
Perhaps the best way to pinpoint the issue, as always in Hollywood, is to follow the money. According to a chart of advertising costs published by Advertising Age magazine in October, NCIS commanded $154,646 for every 30-second commercial, with other popular shows led by boomers following behind.
CSI, which picked up 64-year-old Ted Danson as its new star, clocks in at $135,350; Criminal Minds, with 64-year-old lead Joe Mantegna, earned $137,347. 60 Minutes, TV's longest-running, highest-rated newsmagazine, made $122,075; Bates' Harry's Law, which has struggled on Wednesday nights, charged $64,017.
Compare that to shows connected to youth culture: Fox's The X-Factor ($320,669), The Simpsons ($254,260), Family Guy ($264,912) and Glee ($267,141), along with CBS's Two and a Half Men ($252,418).
"Once boomers turn 50, the networks don't care about them anymore, which is a big mistake," said Marc Berman, a former ratings analyst for NBC who now serves as editor of the website TVMediaInsights.com. "NCIS is in its ninth season, it's bringing in 20 million viewers a week, but nobody cares about it. Glee is the golden child, wins awards, gets overkilled, and it could be gone. It's not a show that will last eight or nine years."
TV will never drop its addiction to youth, said Berman, citing past failed efforts by NBC and CBS to change the conversation. "Nobody's sitting in meetings saying, 'How do we get the 55-plus people?' " he added, noting the industry prefers targeting viewers who are tough to reach, like young men. "According to (advertising executives), they're still sitting in easy chairs watching Diagnosis Murder and Murder She Wrote."
Even TV Land, which once touted the virtues of targeting viewers age 35 to 54, is focusing on younger audiences with its new show The Exes, an ensemble comedy with three of the four lead characters played by actors younger than 50.
"I just think people have blinders on, but we're showing them the way with our leader, Betty White," said Malick, undeterred.
"When you show women who are 50, 60 and 90 enjoying their girlfriends and not giving up, that sends a message," she added. "We're not just going to roll over and think we're like day-old bread."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at www.tampabay.com/blogs/media.