I've got a great story running in this month's LifeTimes, the Tampa Bay Times magazine for baby boomers, about the TV industry's ambivalence about that storied generation.
I start with 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."
But 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. Here's the difference between perception and reality: 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."
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