Letterman vs. O'Brien May Be the Tipping Point on TV's Non-Sensical Age Bias

Last Updated Jul 17, 2009 3:12 PM EDT

Even before I was far into the latter half of the 18 to 49 demographic, I found it bizarre -- and depressing -- that the TV market was pretty much built on the belief that once a viewer hits the age of 50, they are worthless to TV advertisers, and therefore, the TV networks -- particularly in broadcast -- relentlessly cater to people between the ages of 18 to 49, and particularly to those between 18 to 34. In other words, toward people who are not as wed to television as older generations are.

Now, as I come ever closer to aging out of worthiness, there's hope: the tipping point for this increasingly silly bias is here, being expressed in the ratings surge of David Letterman's "Late Show" vs. Conan O'Brien's "Tonight Show." The latest ratings show that Letterman is handily beating O'Brien in total viewers. According to a story on Letterman's resurgence by The New York Times' Bill Carter, last week O'Brien had 2.8 million viewers, while Letterman had 3.7 million. (I believe these are nightly averages, but the story doesn't say.) And this past Wednesday night, aided by a special appearance by Paul McCartney, Letterman bested O'Brien in total viewers by 43 percent, with 4.4 million watching Letterman to 2.5 millon for O'Brien. Fittingly, boomer nostalgia played a role -- McCartney and his former bandmates debuted in the U.S. at The Ed Sullivan Theater 45 years ago, where Letterman is taped -- but with a difference that huge in total audience, it makes the fact that O'Brien leads in viewers 18 to 34, and also viewers 18 to 49, a footnote. Or it should. There's critical mass in those numbers, not to mention the fascinating fact that geezers actually stay up late to watch TV!

Reading these stats reminded me to get in touch with Brent Bouchez, one of the leading creative guys in the ad industry and the founder, in March, of Five-O, an ad agency geared, as the name suggests, toward the over 50 set. (Bouchez himself is 51.) As you might expect, he has been increasingly outspoken about this bias, pointing out that, whatever media and advertisers think, the real money is in the 50-plus set. Those 18-34, he says, have a disposable income in the U.S. of $1 trillion; 50-and-up has disposable income of $2.4 trillion. Of O'Brien's continuing lead in the younger demographic, he said: "Let him lead in that demo. Fine. Letterman is leading in the demo that has the money."

If you're wondering why advertisers and media companies are so wed to these fixed demographics, it really dates back to an age when fine-tuned data on media consumption was so limited that marketers had to target in huge demographic buckets. It was also when the baby boomers were coming of age, Bouchez says, and when people really did build brand loyalties for life, a "fact" that is still believed throughout the media and advertising industries.

But the reality is that no one is as brand loyal as they used to be. For another assignment, I recently finished reading a book from two brand researchers, called "The Brand Bubble: The Looming Crisis in Brand Value and How to Avoid It." Among its conclusions? That brands are wildly overvalued, even by Wall Street, because for the most part, consumers buy on price, not on some habit of buying the same brand over two or three decades. "There's no such thing as brand loyalty anymore," Bouchez adds.

The growing distance in overall audience between Letterman and O'Brien shows that there's a big, important, older market out there still watching TV, and it is horrendously under-served. Maybe this closely-watched contest will be the thing that finally shines bright light on TV's ridiculous age bias, helping to end it, once and for all.

Previous coverage of the late-night wars at BNET Media: