Is 18-49 Passé As Top Demographic?

By all rights, Nevada state Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie should be celebrating life.

A four-term legislator, successful district court administrator, and Nov. 6 is her birthday!

Her 50th birthday.

And that, explains correspondent Jerry Bowen on CBS News Sunday Morning, is the problem.

In some eyes, Leslie no longer exists.

She tells Bowen, "I think I do feel somewhat invisible, and I hear it gets worse the older that you get."

That's because Leslie has just left that much wooed, highly pursued 18-to-49-year-old demographic group, the younger crowd that advertisers covet, and television networks program to please.

"It seems that 50's a very arbitrary line," Leslie observes. "One day, you're 49, the next day, you're 50, but you're the same person. … Looking toward 50, it's an era of my life where I kind of have things figured out. I have more disposable income, more time on my hands in order to try new things. So it, it does seem odd that 50 is the cutoff."

"When you turn 50 in this country," says Marty Kaplan, media analyst and associate dean of USC's Annenberg School of Communication, "you might as well have put a burka on and completely disappeared under the veil. Programmers have no interest in you.

"In fact, some programs are positively 50-plus averse. If you have statistics that show you are watched by that demographic, it's like kryptonite to advertisers. They don't want to be uncool. The notion that one day is a knife edge between cool and uncool, between consumer and Alzheimer's, is ridiculous."

But, says Bowen, it's long been the reality for those who make and sell commercials, based on the belief that the 18 to 49 year old population, some 120 million Americans, is where the money is. Advertisers also believe younger viewers are more impressionable, more susceptible to advertising, and more willing than their parents to try new things.

"Advertisers want to reach a young audience early, and then hopefully lock them into brands. And hopefully hook them for life," remarks Kelly Kahl, CBS senior executive vice president for programming and operations. He's part of the inner-circle that decides which shows live or die on the network; which shows are likely to draw that audience coveted by advertisers.

"I think a lot of it is just simply institutional," Kahl reflects. "Back when people-meters in the early 80's came out, advertisers were able to actually see not just how many people were watching, but who was watching. … They were able to target shows that reached a younger audience. And they've been funneling their dollars that way ever since."

Bowen says the idea that the 18-to-49-year-olds represented the most valuable demographic was the creation of the then last-place ABC network back in the 1970s. Unable to win the overall audience, ABC sold what it had, younger viewers, and 'the demo,' as it's called, became the gold standard for advertisers and all network programmers.

"They called us the geezer network," at the time, recalls CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves.

When Moonves made his annual pitch to ad buyers last spring, he crowed that CBS, long known for its older viewers, could deliver younger viewers, too: the 18-to-49 demo.