Network executives found a miracle anti-aging remedy this season, but it turns out the cure may not last and has some undesirable side effects.
Young TV viewers turned out in droves to watch instant one-name celebs such as Ruben and Clay on "American Idol," Jenna on "Survivor: The Amazon," Evan on "Joe Millionaire" and Trista on "The Bachelorette." But the ever-fickle twenty- and thirtysomethings may not stick around, especially now that network executives have slammed the brakes on reality programming.
Meanwhile, except for CBS' "CSI: Miami," very few freshman scripted shows broke from the pack, and a whole batch of returning series -- from "The West Wing" to "Malcolm in the Middle" -- watched their audiences erode in the key 18-49 demographic favored by advertisers.
The final statistics for the 2002-03 season, which officially ended Wednesday, reveal that reality shows drew network executives a clear map to the long-sought fountain of youth. Indeed, the season's No. 1 series in 18-49 was Fox's reality romance "Joe Millionaire," which topped even NBC's longtime comedy demo king "Friends," according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.
Another hit reality dating show, "The Bachelorette" (median age, 37), helped ABC shed two full years from its overall median age, now 44. Fox, which skews young to begin with (median age, 37), has grown even younger thanks to "American Idol" (median age, 34). (CBS was the only network to go in the other direction, adding half a year to its median age of 52.)
As a result, the broadcast audience may be thought of as increasingly divided into young viewers who like naughty judge Simon on "Idol" and the older folks who prefer Amy Brenneman's Judge Cassidy on CBS' "Judging Amy" (median age, 54).
"When you look at the season, it's pretty clear that 18- to 34-year-olds have flocked to unscripted reality shows, (while) 25- to 54-year-olds were the mainstays of the comedies and 40-plus were the mainstays of the dramas," NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker, whose network staved off a surging challenge from Fox to win the season's demo crown for the third straight year, told reporters in a conference call earlier this week. "It's only the real huge (shows) where there's much crossover."
According to CBS research chief David Poltrack, reality series are generally luring young viewers from cable or non-TV activities rather than other network shows, though in some cases, reality series are stealing time slots from scripted or news shows that likely had more appeal for older viewers.
"There's no question that the most popular reality shows are gaining audience from the younger end of the spectrum, particularly 18- to 34-year-olds," Poltrack said.
And reality shows tend to strike a chord with a generation raised on camcorders, MTV's "The Real World" and the 24-hour news cycle.
"One of the trends we've seen over the past couple of years is the young adult audience really responding to authenticity in programming. You get that naturally in reality television and in a show like 'American Idol,' said Giles Lundberg, Fox's executive vp, research and marketing.
Veteran observers of the nation's TV viewing habits say these trends all add up to a growing gulf between the ages in primetime.
"There has long been a generation gap between younger and older (in television viewing), and (reality) is just a new genre in the mix," said Steve Sternberg, senior vp and director of audience analysis at advertising giant Magna Global USA.
"Older viewers are actually more likely to watch many of these reality shows than young-adult/teen dramas like 'Dawson's Creek.' But since (reality shows) are more likely to replace news mags and movies on the schedule, it does increase the generation gap" in television, Sternberg said.
The question now is whether the networks can hang onto these young viewers. Broadcasters have been losing audience share to cable for years, although the reality boom ensured that the six-network average household share in primetime held steady in the 2002-03 season at a 54 compared with a 55 in 2001-02 season.
But young people, especially viewers 12-34, are typically the first to grow bored and drift away from hit programming concepts, a fact that ABC learned to its chagrin several seasons ago with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." That's potentially bad news for such long-term reality franchises as ABC's "The Bachelor," CBS' "Survivor" and even the youth-besotted "Idol," which is set to return to the Fox schedule in January.
"Younger viewers, and 18- to 34-year-olds in particular, have always been less loyal to the traditional broadcast networks," Poltrack noted.
Also, after a February reality frenzy fueled largely by the surprise success of "Joe Millionaire," network executives have pulled back hard on the genre. There are only six reality shows on the fall schedule, or half of what some executives predicted three months ago. ABC this spring was particularly hard hit by such unscripted flops as "All-American Girl" and "Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People." Many of these second- and third-tier reality shows are particularly young-skewing, including Fox's "Mr. Personality" (median age, 32).
"Reality is here to stay, (but) there was such an over-reliance on it in the past 12 months on everyone's part," Zucker said. "The advertisers have spoken up, and what they want is quality scripted programming."
Advertisers may be putting themselves in a double bind, however. Several of the best-known scripted series suffered serious audience erosion this season, though many of them are nevertheless returning next season. Most of the declines are far too large to be explained away by network executives' favorite bugbear, the ongoing audience fragmentation brought about by cable's growth.
NBC's "The West Wing" plummeted 27% in adults 18-49 share compared with the 2001-02 season. ABC's "The Practice" slid 25%, while NBC's "Law & Order" dipped 11%. Despite heavy buzz, ABC's sophomore spy drama "Alias" was actually off 7%. NBC's "Frasier" tumbled 23%, while CBS' "The King of Queens" was off 16%, and "Everybody Loves Raymond" shed 14%. Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle" slumped 24%. Even "Friends" slipped 13%. And one drama that did show impressive demo growth -- Fox's "24," up 36% -- owes a large chunk of that heady increase to its "Idol" lead-in.
As a result, advertisers likely will be forced to either pay more per viewer for a fading scripted show like "Frasier" -- or else get over their natural aversion to reality.
"Advertisers seek two things: younger upscale audiences ... and a lack of controversy," Poltrack said. When it comes to reality, those goals may be mutually exclusive, except for such eminently family-friendly unscripted series as "Idol" and "Survivor."
Big Four network executives, for their part, already seem to realize that there are limits to how young they can go, with or without reality. For one thing, the WB Network, with a median age of 31, is increasingly cornering the youth market for dramas; for example, the WB's sophomore drama "Smallville" rose 22% in 18-49 this season. That kind of demo growth may force competitors to pay more attention to total-viewer tallies than they have in the past. Distribution is the last remaining advantage that broadcasters enjoy over cable outlets and smaller networks like the WB.
That is the same tune sung for years by CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves, who argues that networks can make money by more or less ignoring demos and building the largest possible audience. CBS, which won the crown in total viewers for the season, has by far the oldest audience among the major networks.
And yet, as Moonves told reporters earlier this week, "The money's coming in here just fine."