How much do television executives lust for young viewers? Enough that they dared to ask Judy Sheindlin if she'd mind doing her famously...

Share story

How much do television executives lust for young viewers? Enough that they dared to ask Judy Sheindlin if she’d mind doing her famously cantankerous “Judge Judy” show from a Florida beach one spring break, laying down the law in a lush landscape of Jell-O shots and overstuffed bikinis.

“You laugh, but they were serious,” Sheindlin recalls. “They said, ‘You’ll be in there with them all around, doing stupid things, and you can keep them in line. Judge some of their contests. It’ll introduce you to a whole new audience.’ I told them, ‘I HAVE a whole new audience. I have teenagers, 13-14-15, writing me fan letters.’ But they wouldn’t listen to me.”

They should have. Not only does Sheindlin have the top-rated daytime syndicated show in America, she often whips her competition in the 18-to-34 age group that makes TV executives — and, even more importantly, their paymasters, the advertisers — grow faint with longing.

In a television universe that worships youth, the 65-year-old Sheindlin is not the only heathen god. Oddly and counterintuitively, the industry’s landscape is increasingly dotted with senior-citizen stars:

• When CBS, in search of younger viewers for its evening newscast, knocked 20 years off the age of its anchor by dropping Bob Schieffer for Katie Couric, ratings plummeted. ABC went the reverse route, replacing 40-something anchors Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff with Charles Gibson, who just turned 65. Result: ABC’s evening news rocketed to No. 1 for the first time since 1996.

• Television’s top Q score — a rating of a star’s name recognition and likability, little known outside the industry but highly prized within it — belongs not to any of the buff young cast members of “Grey’s Anatomy” but “CSI’s” comfortable old shoe of a leading man, William Petersen, 55. At that, Petersen is a mere pup compared to the No. 4 actor on the list, “Law & Order’s” 67-year-old Sam Waterston.

• Older stars are a formidable presence in practically every time slot and channel on television, from the relatively sedate world of morning talk shows — where 76-year-old Regis Philbin has been the undisputed king for nearly two decades — to teeny-bopper prime time. When 54-year-old pro wrestler Hulk Hogan’s reality show “Hogan Knows Best” premiered on VH-1 in 2005, it was the most-watched debut in the network’s history. MTV’s most popular show ever remains “The Osbournes,” whose senescent rocker star Ozzy, 59, was making records 40 years ago, well before most of his viewers were born.

Since the mid-1980s, when computerized “people meters” allowed ratings companies to figure out not just how many people were watching a show, but who they were — their age, gender, race and shopping habits — television has been a demographic battleground, with advertisers seeking to get their messages not just to eyeballs but the “right” eyeballs, especially young ones. Viewers past the age of 54 no longer count at all in TV ratings, and those over 35 are seen with increasing disdain.

The result has been an avalanche of teen soap operas and reality shows that appeal, so advertisers believe, to the self-important narcissism of a young audience that doesn’t want to watch anybody who doesn’t look like themselves.

But a growing body of ratings data suggests that’s simply not true. “I don’t believe there’s any correlation between the age of your stars and the age of your audience,” says Steve Leblang, vice president of planning and research at the FX cable channel.

Leblang’s network has amassed one of the youngest adult audiences in television with shows peopled largely by characters in various stages of middle-aged burnout. Among the most popular: “Rescue Me,” starring 50-year-old Denis Leary as a fireman whose midlife crisis was triggered by the Sept. 11 attacks. Median age of its viewers: 37. Even more pronounced is the age gap between the star of cranky-old-man sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” 63-year-old Danny DeVito, and his audience — more than half of it under 35. Concludes Leblang: “There is something to be said for idea that people of any age want to watch compelling television, no matter who it stars or what it’s about.”

That’s certainly supported by the rankings of Q scores among television personalities compiled by the New York-based Marketing Evaluations. Of the top five men in prime time, the youngest is “CSI’s” George Eads, 41. Even among actresses, where the conventional wisdom is that age is a curse, the top three are “Law & Order: SVU’s” Mariska Hargitay (44), “CSI’s” Marg Helgenberger (49) and sitcom star Reba McEntire (53).

“You can have older leads attracting younger audiences,” argues Henry Schafer, Marketing Evaluations’ executive vice president. “Age doesn’t necessarily matter for some of these people. It’s the type of programs they’ve been associated with over the years that, in some ways, dictates the potential for their future success.”

Nowhere is that more apparent than in television news. The ratings flops of younger anchors include not just the highly publicized cases at ABC and CBS, but the cable news networks as well. If you judged from the number of glossy magazine covers and the chatter on inside-media gossip Web sites like Media Bistro and Gawker, the new face of CNN is soulful stud-muffin Anderson Cooper, 40.

The ratings, however, say otherwise: CNN’s top show is hosted by craggy Larry King, 74, whose broadcasting career began when Dwight Eisenhower was president and Elvis Presley was on top of the record charts. And the only CNN show to beat its head-to-head competition at industry leader Fox News is “Situation Room,” hosted by the determinedly unglamorous Wolf Blitzer, 60. And when AOL recently polled TV viewers about which anchor they’d prefer to see as president, Comedy Central’s terminally hip Jon Stewart, 45, finished a distant second to ABC’s 61-year-old Diane Sawyer.

Convincing advertisers, the people who really run television, may take a while. “If advertisers were putting together a forum on who should be the next president,” fumes Sheindlin, “they’d want Paris Hilton, Christina Aguilera and Nicole Richie, instead of Diane Sawyer, Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters.”

But many TV executives believe a change is already under way. The single-minded pursuit of younger viewers, they say, runs counter to the nature of not just television but demographics themselves. With 80 million baby boomers — more than a quarter of the U.S. population — moving inexorably toward old age, the median age of television viewers is going along with them. It’s 36 now, up from 28 in 1970, and will climb to 38 in another decade. Meanwhile, the age 18-to-34 segment of the TV audience has actually declined, from 67.5 million in 1990 to 67.3 million today.

“Television is an aging medium,” says David Kenin, programming chief for the Hallmark Channel and its new sister network, the Hallmark Movie Channel. “Look at the top shows — ‘CSI’ and ‘Law & Order’ and ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ They’re all older-skewing, they all appeal to baby boomer audiences. And that’s good — these are audiences that have money and assets, instead of allowances.”