Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Gossip Girl and the Aging of America

Two news items stand out. First, the Wall Street Journal reports that CBS and Time Warner may pull the plug on the CW network by next year. Perhaps as early as January 2009. Already stations are defecting from the CW network in the Summer rating doldrums. Next, Variety reports that the average age of network TV viewers is 50 years old. CBS had a median viewing age of 54, ABC 50, NBC 49, Fox 44, CW 34, and Univision 34.

America is getting older, as this graph derived from the US Census Bureau shows:



What does this all mean? It means the Youth Culture is coming to an end. The signs have been there for a long time, people just didn't want to see it.

Popular music has been stagnant since the demise of Grunge in the mid 1990's. Disney tween-pop princesses like Miley Cyrus (or before her, Hillary Duff), hard angry macho rappers, and various emo artists all tread well-worn territory. There is nothing new or original. This is largely due to the small size of the Youth market. For all it's buzz and hype, equaling what the "Daily Show" gets every day, CW's "Gossip Girl" got only 2.2 million viewers on average. It is the lowest rated broadcast network show ever to be renewed. The market for youth-oriented popular music isn't much bigger. No wonder innovation stagnates. The last real innovators in pop music crested in the 1980's, when Rap, Punk, New Wave, and Roots music all arrived. Now, largely popular music relies on recycling those genres. It's telling that re-union projects such as the Police, or the Sex Pistols, can sell out arenas, while current, new bands struggle to sell out lesser venues. Looking at the population chart, it's easy to see why. There just aren't that many young people.

What are the implications for this big, largely un-discussed change?

For TV, it's the end of youth-oriented shows dominating the networks. CW (and before them, the predecessor networks UPN and WB) tried mining the ever-declining youth market and has largely failed. Instead, we'll see shows aimed at older viewers. CBS is likely to continue it's "Crime Time" formula of a plus 45 year old man leading some team to fight crime. In other words, more CSI-type shows. There will be more opportunities for older women too, and less for the hot young thing of the moment. NBC is likely to try and court the older, late thirties to mid forties, more upscale version of CBS's audience with "hip" shows like "My Name is Earl," "the Office," and "Thirty Rock." Hip of course as in Conan O'Brien hip. Nothing too outrageous because the target audience is of course, early middle age. ABC, Fox, and perhaps CW if it survives, will also be chasing after the audience. Legendary 1930's Bank Robber Willie Sutton was alleged to have said (but probably didn't) that he robbed banks because "that's where the money is." For Network TV, the audience is over 34. When your average viewership is 50, that's where the money is.

Youth-oriented shows will still exist, but they won't dominate. At best they're going to be a niche. Like MTV's "My Super Sweet Sixteen." Characterized by cheap, reality programming instead of expensive scripted shows. Scripted shows, which are more expensive, will deal with adult themes, actors, and characters. They will flatter their audiences and conform to their prejudices and views. Since many creative types have labored under the former youth system, denigrating middle aged and middle class values, they'll have a hard time adjusting. I expect a lot of creative turn-over as the new demands of the mature audience winnow out those unable to transition from serving youth to middle age.

For Film, it's even worse. Hollywood's big-budget youth-oriented comedy or action/adventure movies, like "Spider-Man," "Iron Man," "Batman Begins," "Knocked Up," "The Wedding Crashers," and so on form the basis of Hollywood's profitability. Hollywood CAN make money on other types of films. "Sex and the City," appealing to women, young and old, is likely a moderately profitable money maker. Oscar nominated or winning movies can if carefully budgeted and promoted thrift-fully make a few million bucks here and there. Romantic comedies like "27 Dresses" and such may also make a moderate profit. But not the type of insane, hand-over-fist profits that provide Malibu mansions, private jets, and the like to Hollywood's top money makers. Hollywood has become dangerously dependent on males, ages16-34, to provide their core profitability.

This age group provides the huge Summer date-night weekends, return visits to see the movie again, the DVD sales, "Special Edition" DVD sales, "Director's Cut" DVD, and so on. Partly this is because TV is a gay-female ghetto, with little to attract the younger male audience. Only movies provide entertainment like "Iron Man," or "Superbad." Partly it's because this sector of the population can be enthused by a proper marketing campaign (likely related to the scarcity of non video game alternatives to these types of movies.) Regardless, one thing is certain.

Unlike prior decades, this sector of the movie audience is smaller than before. And getting OLDER. More inclined to the 34 age range than the 16. Demographics don't lie. America can't just clone existing young men.

What does this mean for Movies?

More movies like "Wedding Crashers," where two men in their thirties settle down with "the right girl." Fewer movies like "Superbad," featuring teen actors and characters. More movies like "Iron Man," or "Batman Begins," with leading men in their thirties and forties, who act like it. Less opportunities for eternally callow actors like Ashton Kutcher and Sean William Scott. Bidding wars over the few actors who look like and (more importantly) can play mature men. That "Iron Man" was a huge hit, as of today doing $311 million dollars in domestic box office revenue (per Box Office Mojo) is telling. Even the action/adventure movie audience is sliding older, with 40 plus Robert Downey Jr. in the lead, as opposed to say, Shia LaBeouf.

The boy-man trend is going to end. The shakeout is going to be brutal, with a number of movies featuring the younger leads simply failing, until Hollywood finally gets it. Hollywood will have to search abroad for many of it's leading men, something it's already doing with "Batman Begins" star Christian Bale and NBC's "Life" star Damian Lewis, Brits both.

What does this mean for Music?

Likely, more tours and releases by bands and acts that made their mark in the 1980's and earlier. Newer bands will struggle to find an audience and niche. Simple tunes about adolescent angst won't be as popular, and the youth market is likely to consist of tweener pop princesses and emo boy bands. Both of which will have very short shelf lives as they age out of their fans desires.

Gone will be the days when popular music defined a generation, or when it signified the demographic power of youth. Because that power is gone. All that remains is the few minor hurrahs of bands and groups from the 1980's, the last moment youth mattered.

As the US population ages, the decline in popularity of dance music, and the increase in popularity of mood-enhancing music is only going to be more and more apparent. Older people don't like to dance as much as younger ones. Country music is likely to be more popular, and classical and opera can see revivals, particularly through pay-per-view events or movie theater transmissions. Already a number of Opera houses including NYC's Met are doing just that.

In short, the youth culture is dead. Perhaps the CW network will die with it, or re-invent itself as a more mature network catering to older viewers. But clearly the nearly 50 year obsession with the youth culture is over. Because there just aren't that many young people.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think even the successful comedies with teen actors that you mention (like Superbad) are at heart fairly conservative with a veneer of profanity -- able to crossover to older audiences.

Whiskey said...

That's true. Apatow says he makes the most conservative movie possible (socially) and then adds as many profane elements as possible.

Kendama said...

I read this, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Yes, this ought to be a rather interesting trend. Ha! So much for "global youth culture"!

Anonymous said...

Your analysis, while thoughtful, isn't quite right. If you look at your bar graph, you're not comparing the same size age groups with each bar. It looks like the youth is smaller than the older groups, but that's because each bar represents a smaller age range: The yellow, green, and burgundy bars each cover 10 year spans of population, while the first two, the blue and the yellow, each cover 5 year spans. If you add them together, the youth population is on par with gen X and the baby boom.

Marcus said...

To the July 9 "anonnymous" comment. Although the writer did make that "disparity," I think it's in reference to the fact that those respond to specific demographics. The first bars are smaller in age groups because the needs differentiate greatly even within those few years, whereas the middle-aged groups can be more bundled together because their needs are more inclined to match.