Braun HF 1 TV receiver, 1958/Wikimedia Commons Note how the appearance of the set underscores the passivity of the viewer.

Last month, we noted that the kids are moving on from Facebook to immediate messaging. Well, in another major shift, the TV audience is going gray.

The Financial Times tells us that the big ad buyers are no longer in hot pursuit of TV: “The US television industry has just suffered the first decline in early advertising-buying since the recession [2009].” Down 7.7% for broadcast spending.

Ad buyers have more options now, including smartphones and tablet. The biggest ad buyers, automotive and personal care goods, are cutting back.

It is true that TV still commands the biggest share of advertising spending (38 per cent), mainly due to live shows like the World Cup final viewed live by 26.5 million Americans, for example. But, straw in the wind, more Americans today subscribe to broadband Internet than to cable television.

But the big news is that the remaining TV audience is older now, much older:

The median age of viewers who watch CBS–which broadcasts the popular NCIS franchise–is 58.7 years old.

The median age of a broadcast or cable television viewer during the 2013-2014 TV season was 44.4 years old, a 6 percent increase in age from four years earlier. Audiences for the major broadcast network shows are much older and aging even faster, with a median age of 53.9 years old, up 7 percent from four years ago. (Washington Post) tells us,

The median age of the U.S. population is 37.2.

Younger people download media to suit their employment schedules (or their own) instead of changing their schedules to view them. Also, they are used to interacting immediately with the medium via the comments box and the vote feature. Thus, increasing numbers don’t bother with a passive-viewer medium like TV at all.

The chill is evident in the industry. For example, CNBC viewership has plunged to 21-year lows, with drops especially noted in the core 25-54 demo. Last month it was announced that Times Warner Turner would be offering 550 buyouts.

Some have wondered, “Wait a minute! Doesn’t the aging population mean that eventually more people will enter the age group that watches TV?

No, because people entering their fifties today are typically familiar with the flexibility and interactiveness of Internet-based services. Even now, it is routine for seniors’ homes in Canada, for example, to have wireless Internet for residents.

Radio host Derek Hunter suggests that the solution for TV is to bring back the news:

The biggest problem is they don’t do news anymore; they do entertainment masquerading as news…

You may get a quick update at the start of a segment – maybe – but that immediately pivots with a “Let’s turn to X for reaction…” X has no firsthand knowledge of the subject at hand because X usually is a blogger or a radio host who’s never worked a second in government or on the issue about to be discussed.

Essentially, a bunch of disconnected people are being granted the credibility (what’s left of it, anyway) afforded people on TV by being on TV. But they have none; they’ve simply read the latest newswire story on the topic and can deliver a few quips on the subject at hand.

I don’t think Mr. Hunter’s proposal will work because today many people find out the basic news through a variety of channels on the Internet. Increasingly, if they pay attention to TV at all, they are looking for the frills he complains of.

Put another way: TV did not lose viewers because it became more left wing or frivolous (as some complain). It became less centrist and more frivolous because it was already losing viewers. And it was losing viewers because it was no longer providing an essential service for anything like the same numbers of people.

I call this the “air traffic controller” principle: If we need the ATC to land planes safely, he must restrict his on-the-job communications to that end. If a robot can land the planes safely, and the ATC still has a radio transmitter, he can say whatever he pleases, as long as he isn’t interrupting anything important. But eventually, many will wonder why he still has a job there. Then he won’t.

Increasingly, that is where major network TV finds itself today in relation to the Internet.

See also: Are traditional media dying? Who will they take down with them?

From 2010 but still relevant:


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...