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Aging Boomers a Boon for Networks

10/20/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

With 78 million aging baby boomers — 67 million of whom are already over 55 — and another 116 million expected to move into the silver set by 2035, older viewers are becoming a hot commodity with cable networks. And with an increasing number of channels actively courting the country's aging population, it may simply be a matter of time before Madison Avenue starts seeing green among those gray hairs.

Retirement Living TV launched last month on Comcast's regional CN8 network, with an entire programming block designed specifically for audiences 55 and older. The noon-to-4 p.m. weekday block features a collection of original lifestyle series focused on finance, travel, cooking and fitness aimed at servicing the retiree market. Network executives say seniors are being overlooked and underserved by television. But they don't expect that to be the case much longer.

“We have begun this month to aggressively go out and talk to advertising partners,” said Pat Baldwin, senior director of TV and media development for Retirement Living TV. “And what you find is, while there may be a lot of myths generally in the media buying community about this group, there are certainly industries that understand that this is a valuable demo.”

While several networks, including all of the cable news channels, reach a sizable number of viewers over 50, TV Land and Hallmark Channel were among the first cable networks to serve seniors. As Retirement Living and niche network, AmericanLife TV, gear up to ride the age wave, more overt moves are being made in programming to target mature audiences.

In the early 1960s, commercial television catered to boomer viewers, said Larry Jones, president of TV Land and Nick at Nite.

“A lot of advertisers are coming to the realization that they have been, quite frankly, targeting this generation for the last 20 to 30 years,” Jones said. “It just so happens that they're moving out of that 18-to-34 demo and moving into a 40-plus demo.”

Although the leading advertisers for boomers are pharmaceuticals, investment companies and travel, the generation is also the biggest consumer group for packaged goods, food products, clothing, cosmetics and automobiles. They're also the leading category in electronics buys.

TARGETING BOOMERS

“From a marketing point of view when you look at who has the money right now it's baby boomers,” said Ann Wasik, spokeswoman for Ameriprise Financial, which is among the increasing number of advertisers developing campaigns targeted to maturing boomers.

Still, as Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research for Horizon Media, pointed out, capturing younger demos remains top of mind for many networks and advertisers.

“They're so obsessed with getting younger viewers: No. 1, because they're hard to reach, and No. 2, there is this notion that they're buying and they'll have a lifetime value of product purchasing,” he said.

As more mainstream advertisers begin to cultivate the 50-plus group, “you'll start to see more outlets targeting them with either some night of programming or other kinds of programming in some way, shape or form,” Adgate said.

“Undoubtedly the older demo is going to be much better understood five years from now than it is today,” said Brian Wiesser, vice president and director of media analysis for media buyer Magna Global. “But the bigger transformation to come will be for those marketers who today assume their target audience must be between either 18 to 49 or 25 to 54 and that if you're older than that, it doesn't matter because those consumers are less prone to change.”

Some industry experts see a change in the attitude towards boomers as more studies are conducted to better measure audience response to advertising and its relationship to buying habits.

One such study is the Project Apollo program. Developed by Arbitron and VNU's Media Measurement and Information Group, the pilot program samples over 5,000 ACNielsen households to gauge media usage, commercial exposure and product purchases.

“One of the reasons that advertisers are very interested in the Apollo service is that it gives them a direct measurement of their return on investment for most of the marketing programs that they do,” Nielsen Media Research senior vice president of client insights Howard Shimmel said.

“In its full expansion, Apollo will let networks, like Hallmark, who have fairly unique media assets, document the value of those assets in driving product sales,” he added.

When it comes to programming, TV Land has long had a strong following among mature audiences. The network is ranked eighth among all cable networks in delivering 40- to 59-year-old viewers, with a median age of 53.

With over 85 million subscribers, older viewers have flocked to the shows of their wonder years: All in the Family, Leave It to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, Sanford and Son and Bonanza, along with nostalgia-based originals such as Inside TV Land: Primetime Politics and TV Guide and TV Land Present: The 100 Most Memorable TV Moments.

“Seventy percent of our target audience is already between the ages of 40 and 54,” said TV Land's Jones, who partnered with baby boom expert Ken Dychtwald for a study to be released next month on this viewing market, which they're dubbing “The New Power Demographic.”

“When you looked at the television landscape, there was nobody saying: 'We're your generation. We're the TV generation,'” Jones said. “So we thought it was a huge market opportunity. But the question now is, how can we build that bond even stronger?”

The annual TV Land Awards has allowed the network to broaden its scope to include TV movies, music and current television. It now plans to add theatricals to its lineup.

'GENERATION BOOM'

This month, the network premiered the four-part Generation Boom, about boomers and their issues. It also launched, I Pity the Fool, an original reality self-help series with Mr. T, star of the classic action series The A-Team.

I Pity the Fool clearly has a relationship to classic TV,” Jones said. “But the things we have in the development pipeline as we're looking over the next six to 12 months, we're starting to go above and beyond programming that is just about TV shows.”

At Hallmark, popular original franchises Mystery Woman, Jane Doe and McBride gave the channel its highest-ever August household and total viewer ratings among adults 25 to 54. Although Hallmark has a median age of 57 from its 74 million subscriber homes, boomers and their families are a big part of its overall target audience.

“When we say family, we're not talking about there being kids in the room necessarily,” said Hallmark senior executive vice president of programming David Kenin. “But if there are children in the room, they're not going to see anything in the content [of our programs] that is going to be offensive to the values of the family.”

Hallmark senior vice president of research Jess Aguirre added, “Before we launched, the one thing we heard loud and clear was that people were just darn tired of watching television and having to have their finger on the remote control. We provide a haven where they don't have to do that.”

Hallmark's lineup of original movies relies heavily on recognizable TV stars: Patrick Duffy, Patty Duke, Shirley Jones, Stacy Keach, John Larroquette and Doris Roberts among them.

“We are very comfortable with the way we're booking stars,” said Kenin,” We have the benefit of someone who has been in front of the American public for decades. It gives us a tremendous profile.”

But the channel's next big move to bolster its brand will have no human stars on the marquee. In keeping with its family-friendly fare, Hallmark will kick off the holidays with the TV premiere of March of the Penguins over Thanksgiving weekend.

The AmericanLife TV network launched March 2005, claiming to be the first independent 24-hour channel for the over-40 crowd. The network, which debuted nearly two decades ago as Nostalgia TV and later became Good Life TV, is now in 10 million homes with carriage on Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications and Comcast systems. It recently announced a carriage deal in Dallas, and plans to add Los Angeles by the end of the year.

AmericanLife TV, which has a median age of 45-years-old, features vintage series such as Combat, The Man From Uncle and 77 Sunset Strip.

“We're a lifestyle network with a healthy dose of classic entertainment,” said Larry Meli, president and CEO of AmericanLife.

Forty percent of the network's programming is originals, including the quarterly special Moments That Changed Us, hosted by journalist Nick Clooney. The network also airs weekly lifestyle programs such as Alive & Well, 'Til Debt Do U$ Part and Fixing Dinner, which focus on health, finance and cooking.

“People are looking for those lifestyle kind of shows that help make sense of their lives,” said Darlene Chapman-Holmes, the channel's vice president of marketing. “I think there are a lot of networks that have always skewed a little bit older, but they don't want to say they're older. But we are aiming for that market.”

When John Erickson, the billionaire founder and CEO of Maryland-based Erickson Retirement Communities, came up with the idea for Retirement Living TV four years ago, he found advertisers and cable operators had a lot of myths and misperceptions about retirees. He wanted to change that. But, as Baldwin noted, being an independent channel doesn't offer many opportunities to make a lot of noise.

“One big challenge we have is the difficult situation that independent networks are faced with,” he said. “There's not a real open market to independent networks all the time. But the difference here is [Erickson] said to the advertising community. 'I'm writing the check personally and I'm gonna start doing this and you're gonna see I can grab a bunch of eyes and that'll make you interested in this.”

Erickson is currently the sole financier for the month-old programmer that is distributed by Comcast's CN8 and services over 9 million homes in 12 Eastern markets, stretching from Maine to Virginia and Washington, D.C.

“Ultimately it came down to really good timing for us,” CN8 general manager and vice president Jon Gorchow said of the partnership. “We were in the midst of relaunching the network this summer, adding several new original shows, expanding our distribution, building new studios and sets and revising our Monday-through-Friday lineup to over 90 hours per week, but we still had the opportunity to partner with an outside content provider. We knew this is an expanding and underserved audience, and the deal came together pretty quickly.”

With lifestyle shows such as The Art of Living, Healthline and The Informed Citizen, Retirement Living executives are already exploring ideas to include original sitcoms and dramas as they begin looking to broaden their advertising base.

“One media buyer said to me, 'You know no one ever got fired for buying the same thing everyone else buys. But trying to be the person saying we should be on the leading edge buying 55 and over, that's a little bit risky,'” Baldwin said. “That's a challenge that I'm pretty sure we're gonna work through and our early signs are quite positive.”

September