Network TV: Where the Money Is, But the Young Viewers Aren't

Last Updated May 25, 2010 10:48 AM EDT

Here's the best evidence I've seen in a long time that advertisers' focus on buying network TV to reach younger viewers is just plain goofy. Per Advertising Age, the median age of network TV viewers is 51 -- yes, two years older than the coveted 18-to-49 demographic that is allegedly so desirable. (On Fox, the median age is a spry 44.)

The Ad Age story asks -- and answers -- the obvious question: if that's the case, why are advertisers about to spend $9 billion in upfront ad sales in a medium young people aren't watching? The magazine's answer is that, all things considered, network TV is still, basically, the path of least resistance to reaching the most young viewers, simply because the networks overall audiences are so huge.

But I'd also like to attribute it to something else: the inertia about developing TV buying systems that can buy choice audiences across the whole array of TV properties. Think about it: online networks group inventory across hundreds, even thousands of sites, allowing advertisers to reach large swaths of their demographic, but in TV, those things exist in only the most limited of ways, like NBC Universal's bid this year to sell advertisers on the idea that buying across its portfolio of TV properties -- including cable -- they can reach nine out of 10 people in America. But that's just raw mass reach, not demographics. There's a word in online advertising for buying media that reaches loads of people you don't want to reach: waste.

Of course, there are huge disincentives to buying media any other way in TV, and so far, the fact that network TV is rapidly becoming an old person's medium isn't enough to change things. Unless you're NBC, and the clear loss leader among the Big Four broadcast networks, the idea of pooling inventory is anathema. Those non-network buys (even on NBC properties) fetch a lot less money, even when the media (read: cable) being bought gets a comparable audience, on a show-by-show basis, as a network show. It doesn't make sense to spend billions of dollars like this, but that's the way, amazingly enough, it still is.

Previous coverage of this year's upfront at BNET Media: