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THE TV COLUMN: Not in 18-49 age group? TV execs write you off

By Michael Storey

This article was published April 23, 2009 at 4:38 a.m.

— I know you read this column for pithy insight and airwaves erudition.

Thank you. I am most flattered. You are an intelligent and discerning reader. I cherish you and every reader like you.

One of the most difficult chores I must perform in my TV columnist duties is to try to explain to e-mailers why their favorite program had its plug pulled.

A typical inquiry might go: "Can you tell me if (insert name of struggling TV series that started out promising but faded in the ratings and has gone on hiatus only to return in the summer to have its unused episodes burned off so the network can sell the boxed set digital video disc) will ever come back? It was my very most favorite series ever."

I try my best, but it's complicated why some shows live and some shows die. And it's not always just about the ratings, but that's the bottomline.

Television is a business. A for-profit business. It sells programs to advertisers. Advertisers, eager to reach a particular audience, buy commercials on the shows they believe are being watched by those they want to reach.

If a lot of the right people watch a series, advertisers want to buy ads. Everybody makes money and the stars go on Entertainment Tonight and on the covers of magazines and on The View and live happily ever after until the show fades and we don't care about them anymore.

Sometimes, a series with a lower rating might be doing just fine compared to one with higher viewer numbers. That's because the lower-rated show is attracting viewers certain advertisers want to reach.

Then there's the point of diminishing returns. An older series (think ER) will have actors making a lot more money. Maybe it's a particularly expensive program to shoot with outdoor locations and special effects.

At some point, the advertising no longer covers the bills and although the audience numbers may still be relatively high, the show has, as they say, "run its natural course." If it's lucky, they give it closure and there's a nostalgic clip show and past actors say nice things.

One of the most frustrating aspects of whether a series lives or not is the parsing of the ratings. Ratings numbers get lots of spin.

Logical or not, advertisers covet the elusive 18 to 49 demographic. If you are under age 18 or older than 49, you pretty much don't count with many advertisers.

The prime example of this is a comparison between the geriatric-beloved Murder, She Wrote and the younger-skewing Friends. Their runs overlapped a couple of seasons and they had about the same number of viewers. But Friends was able to get three times the money for one of its commercials because of its younger audience.

Advertisers are convinced that older viewers are set in their ways and won't try their new product. Younger viewers, they believe, are more malleable and open to the advertising.

Long, ulcer-churning boardroom discussions take place about that but, right or wrong,the networks brag about scoring in the 18-49 demographic. If your favorite series doesn't do well enough in this demographic, it could be the first nail in the cancellation coffin.

Here's an example of what I mean, taken from the 18-49 ratings of the week that ended April 12. That was the week of the college basketball tournament, so we have to go down to No. 4 to find a scripted series.

The number in parentheses is how many million viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 watched the program live or recorded it and watched the same day.

1. American Idol Tues. (8.1)

2. American Idol Wed. (8.0)

3. NCAA Basketball (6.3)

4. House (5.1)

5. Dancing/Stars (4.6)

6. Fringe (4.0)

7. The Office (3.9)

8-10. Lost (3.8); CSI (3.8); 24 (3.8)

That was the Top 10. The ratings go down from there to Nos. 99 and 100 - 90210 and Howie Do It, which managed only 1.1 million apiece in the hot demographic.

With so few coveted demographic viewers, how can Howie Do It still be on the air? Because it's dirt cheap to produce and kills an hour of TV. It's not always about the ratings.

How about The CW's 90210? The series scores well with teenage girls. Advertisers know exactly who is watching and that audience is targeted by the commercials.

The 18-49 ratings are just one aspect of whether your show lives or dies. As you read this, the networks are looking at pilot shows, evaluating their schedules, weighing the options and preparing for their fall schedule announcements next month. Keep your fingers crossed.

The TV Column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. E-mail:

mstorey@arkansasonline.com

Weekend, Pages 35 on 04/23/2009

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