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The TV Industry’s Secret Fear

Is the TV industry harboring a deep, dark secret that no one really wants to talk about – but one that threatens to tear the entire ad economy apart?

I don’t know!

But there is a serious nagging fear that is bubbling under the surface in the TV business that no one likes talking or even thinking too much about.

Are the people that still actually watch TV ads increasingly – gulp – downscale?

Meaning, with the explosion of ad-free streaming and the ever-plummeting live audience for network and cable TV, are the only people who are still tuning in to see ‘what’s on’ the ones who can’t afford anything else? And maybe can’t afford your products?

And if true, what does that harbor for advertisers who rely on TV to reach every rung of the socioeconomic ladder?

Well – for starters, have you seen the most recent TV ratings numbers? “RATINGS BOMBSHELL: IN TWO YEARS, NETWORK TV DEMOS PLUMMETED 27 PERCENT” shouted Ad Age recently.

Let’s put one obvious fact aside. LOADS of old people (really old, like 50+) watch oodles of live TV. This is habitual, decades-learned, comfort-food, formulaic-show-driven behavior that is unlikely to change ever. Put an episode of JAG-NCIS-CSI-FBI-SVU in front of my parents tonight at 9, and mom and dad will lap it up in real-time, even if they’ve seen it, or aren’t sure.

If you take away the olds (which advertisers don’t want), roughly 7 million people on average watch broadcast linear TV each night, per Ad Age.

On the one hand, that’s still a lot. But it’s not exactly a mass cultural gathering anymore.

More to the point, if you live in a streaming-centric/big city coastal bubble, it makes you wonder, just who are these people?

This is the worst way to do research, but we all still do it. Don’t these people know someone with an HBO GO password? You mean instead of binging “Russian Doll” there are actually 25-year olds sitting down and tuning into “MacGyver” – when it’s on? And Pluto TV?? – no one I know uses it, so it must be bogus, right?

The question I’d ask is – does that mean these people can’t afford streaming? Are they just young and broke? Not particularly tech-savvy or media-picky? Do they live in rural areas that have lousy broadband?

Or are they increasingly just low-income Americans?

These are definitely questions TV executives and ad leaders are having, very quietly.

Of course, of course, of course – there’s nothing wrong with being low income. There has been some recent evidence in the US that low-income people have a big voice and see the world a bit differently than some of us Madison Ave/Hollywood types – and we should all open our collective eyes to that reality.

Except this is marketing, where stereotyping large groups of people by assuming they have a common set of attitudes and attributes isn’t frowned upon – it’s actually the business.

Advertisers not only look to make sweeping generalizations by running ads aimed at only specific demographics – they place a distinct value on the ones they care about and deliberately devalue the ones they don’t.

And many advertisers prefer to target ads to middle-class Americans, or people of a certain means. Exactly the kind of people who these days often say, “I only watch Netflix.”

There are some worried that these aren’t the people that watch TV ads anymore.

As a reporter, I had tried numerous times to get data to support all these theories. But if there is hard research data supporting the idea that TV’s audience is increasingly Red State or D-county or whatever, I had trouble finding it. Whether that’s because it’s not out there, or TV’s stakeholders don’t want it out there, I’m not sure.

But like I said, this is something that TV executives and advertisers talk about in private. That I’m sure about. And if the TV audience picture increasingly becomes clearer with better data, it’s the kind of talk that could escalate from buried fear – to serious panic.







Header photo credit: “Buddy Ebsen, Irene Ryan, The Beverly Hillbillies, “Elly Starts to School,” 1963″ by classic_film is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0