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For boomers, TV could become a bust

The signs are all around us: from the pointed lack of fortysomethings in new midseason TV projects to ABC's embarrassing fumble in trying to swap journalism treasure Ted Koppel for talk show king David Letterman.

Baby boomers, listen up. TV just doesn't care about you that much anymore.

Gasp! Can it be true? Is the generation that made an icon of Bob Dylan and made golf cool again about to be left behind by pop culture's biggest megaphone?

The writing has been on the wall for a while. But ABC's ruthlessness in acknowledging that Koppel's Nightline is far less profitable than the younger-skewing Letterman show _ in part because its viewers are an average of three years older _ made the message unmistakable.

"Baby boomers will soon realize that the coming generation _ often labelled Generation Y _ has even greater numbers than the baby boom generation, and the media will eventually overcater to their cultural choices," said John Rash, a senior vice president and director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, a Minneapolis marketing agency.

"Baby boom audiences will soon feel the same jolt that perhaps their parents felt when The Lawrence Welk Show was jettisoned for The Monkees," he added.

Ouch!

And that's just one of many brutal TV truths revealed in recent weeks. Here are a few more:

Truth 1: The commercial TV industry is often built on smoke and mirrors.

Despite decades of experience and the most modern polling techniques available, no one knows exactly how many people watch a given TV show at a given time.

Also, no one knows exactly how many people are attracted by a specific advertisement, exactly why they were attracted or whether that attraction led to a specific purchase.

That's because such data is based on polling small groups of people to determine larger trends. And in the case of the national TV ratings assembled by Nielsen Media Research (with much of the work done at facilities in Dunedin), viewership statistics come from about 5,100 households, surveyed to reflect the habits of 105.5-million TV-watching households.

"This whole multinational industry is based on 5,000 households _ they determine what's going on in television," said Marc Berman, a TV ratings analyst for Mediaweek magazine and its companion Web site. "Everything that's out there is just an assumption, and it's based on limited data _ in ratings and advertising. It really is all about who can spin who better."

Berman used to work for NBC, spinning advertisers and the press on the network's viewership figures. He has seen survey data indicating that young people spend more money than older consumers _ prompting advertisers to pass up parents earning money to target their kids who use it. But he's not sure he buys it.

"I always thought the most successful network is the one that can reach a variety of viewers _ like CBS does now," Berman added.

True enough, CBS entertains older viewers with shows such as 60 Minutes and The Education of Max Bickford, while snagging younger viewers with Survivor, Everybody Loves Raymond and C.S.I.But NBC, which targets younger, affluent eyeballs with blockbusters such as Friends, ER, The West Wing, Law & Order, Frasier and Leap of Faith, made more money in the year 2000, the latest year for which comparative figures were available.

"From a statistical standpoint, we are confident our measurement service provides an accurate picture of what people are watching," said Anne Elliot, vice president of communications for Nielsen in New York City, who said even doubling the numbers of households sampled wouldn't increase their accuracy significantly. "If you look at the Gallup Poll or other kinds of statistical research . . . it's a well-accepted practice."

Now Nielsen has developed software to pinpoint how many people of a certain age, education level or income watched a specific show. Another program matches the ratings data to video so networks can see, minute to minute, what attracts or repels viewers (a version is also coming for local TV ratings).

This sounds like a nightmare to TV critics, who think broadcasters (and broadcast journalists) already spend too much time watering down product to avoid losing viewers.

What kind of news will we get if stories (and sources) are scrutinized minute by minute to gauge their appeal?

On the plus side, such information might keep NYPD Blue from showing us Dennis Franz's naked backside again.

Truth 2: TV punishes its most loyal customers for being loyal.

Want to know why so much mainstream TV caters to men? Because, statistically, more women watch TV.

Puzzled about why there's so much out there for young viewers? Because older viewers are far more likely to watch TV and remain loyal to specific shows.

If any other business followed this model _ ignoring loyal customers for those who value their service much less _ they'd go the way of Enron in short order. But networks such as NBC and the WB have made billions under the same philosophy.

"The supply and demand dynamics mean that younger viewers, who watch less TV, are more expensive to reach, because their supply is lower," said Rash. "If marketers believed there was a maximum return on investment by targeting 65-year-olds, the media would program to that dynamic."

These head-scratching realities come courtesy of another TV truth: Broadcasters don't make money directly from airing shows viewers like. They make money by airing shows that attract the kinds of viewers advertisers like.

For proof, consider Electronic Media magazine's October chart estimating the cost of advertising on this season's prime time network TV shows.

In it, CBS' highly rated journalism institution 60 Minutes charged less ($118,000 per 30 seconds) than now-canceled NBC sitcom disaster Inside Schwartz ($238,000), Fox's reality TV sexfest Temptation Island 2 ($175,000) and two canceled ABC series _ What About Joan ($201,000) and Thieves ($127,000).

Truth 3: ABC would prove itself the biggest nincompoop in network TV by canceling Nightline now.

One of the few things that keep TV from becoming a wasteland of Judge Judy clones and Fear Factor ripoffs is that, in the television business, appearances are nearly as important as reality.

That's also probably what's keeping Disney chairman Michael Eisner from sending Nightline to the showers despite Letterman's rebuff.

ABC never asked me, but here's what they should do: Cancel Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher when his contract ends later this year and let him move on to the much needed, libertarian-style radio show he keeps threatening to create.

Then, the network should fill that post-Nightline slot with an energetic entertainment show hosted by a young talent such as Jon Stewart or Chris Rock (which means _ are you listening, cheapskate Disney? _ pumping some bucks into the operation).

When Koppel decides to leave, move your exciting entertainment show to 11:35 p.m. and push Nightline back to 12:05 p.m. or 12:35 p.m. and cancel it when the ratings plummet.

Of course, this probably makes too much sense for ABC _ which responded to criticism about the generic title of its upcoming TV network satire The Web by renaming the show Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central). Seriously.

Truth 4: Baby boomers turn into big babies when the world doesn't bend to their will. And that could be a good thing.

In the end, the Letterman-Koppel incident didn't exacerbate or aggravate any of these issues _ it simply drew them into the light, where they could disgust us all.

Perhaps the ultimate result of all this angst will be to spur baby boomers into reforming the system. After all, they're the ones who now run the networks, advertising agencies, corporate advertisers and TV stations that make up the industry.

Finally, the irresistible force of TV economics would meet the immovable object of baby boomers' belief that the world should revolve around their needs.

Now that's something that could redefine television for real.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521 or e-mail degganssptimes.com.

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