REPLACEMENT AGE

Posted in Quick Hits on December 30th, 2013 by Ed

One of my favorite hey-did-you-see-this stories of 2013 happened in mid-July when AC Nielsen data showed that the median Fox News viewer is so old that we don't even know how old he is. Since the company stops tracking age at 65 – it can be assumed safely, I guess, that anything marketed to a 70 year old would also be marketed to an 80 year old – and "above 65" is now statistically the majority of Fox's audience.

It is not hard to reach this conclusion without the benefit of hard data. Just watch Fox News for an hour or two and keep track of the advertisements. Hip implants. "Mobility scooters". Prescription drugs for arthritis. The companies ponying up for these ads know goddamn well who is watching before they write the check.

Despite the tremendous "passion" for which Fox News viewers are known in the media and marketing industries, it goes without saying that any business relying heavily on people who are going to die pretty soon need to think ahead. The network has attempted to "get younger" by bringing in on-air talent under 50 and promoting programming that isn't aimed at elderly white men (e.g. the Dadaist masterpiece Fox & Friends) it isn't translating into younger viewers.

But for six of the last eight years, Fox News has had a median age of 65-plus and the number of viewers in the 25-54 year old group has been falling consistently, down five years in a row in prime time, from an average of 557,000 viewers five years ago to 379,000 this year. That has occurred even though Fox’s overall audience in prime time is up this year, to 2.02 million from 1.89 million three years ago.

The network also has been faced with a recent string of nightly wins in that 25-54 audience by CNN, which had been hopelessly behind in recent years.

We needn't point out that losing to CNN is a bad sign.

I've always thought of Fox News as a means of occupying the elderly; its older viewers turn it on early in the morning and leave it on in the background all day. It is to the over 65 demographic what the Disney Channel is to kids – a product designed (flawlessly) to keep them out of the way of people who have things to do. Is that stereotyping the elderly? Sure. Some people in that age group hate Fox and are very productive. But if we're talking about means and medians and modes, we're talking about a viewer who's retired or close to it and in need of a distraction.

Most companies that market to the elderly survive because the ranks are always being replenished. That consumer who needs a hip implant might be dead in a few years but eventually you and I will become that consumer in the future. It is going to be interesting over the next decade to see if this holds true for a media network selling an intangible product. The over 65 population will peak soon and then decline rapidly barring an unexpected influx of ancient immigrants. It will be fascinating to see if future generations of elderly Americans flock to Fox in a way that they clearly are not doing as younger and middle-aged people. Has Fox created a product so specifically tailored not merely to the elderly but to a single, specific cohort of the elderly that it will die when its current viewers do?

Everything about the network is geared toward the Greatest Generation with the underlying premise that America was awesome in the Fifties and our current society has abandoned the values of that era. What is Fox going to do when its elderly viewers don't remember the Fifties? Or weren't alive yet? Or think fondly of American culture in the Sixties of their childhood? Or spent their college years in the Seventies higher than kites?

As financially successful as it is at present, Fox News obviously isn't in danger of disappearing anytime soon. It is unclear, however, what it will be offering its main demographic in twenty years. If it tries giving them what the network airs right now, it's difficult to see that selling as well with future generations. Once the elderly demographic is composed mostly of people who grew up not in idyllic Fifties America but in kinda-shitty Seventies America, a yearning for the Good Ol' Days isn't going to be an easy sell.