The upfronts nearly forgot about TV’s biggest, oldest audience

Pitches centered on streaming, but linear TV is still No. 1.
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5 min read

If you haven’t heard, all the cool kids (and shows) are on streaming TV. But while networks spent plenty of time this upfront season showing off the programming soon to arrive on the streaming platforms that Gen Z and millennials prefer, there’s one thing they almost left out of this year’s presentations: the old viewers of regular-old TV.

In a week chock-full of glitzy presentations and performances centered on streamers like Disney+, Discovery+, HBO Max, Hulu, Pluto, and Paramount+, Warner Bros. Discovery made a move that hinted at TV’s dirty little secret: Plenty of viewers are still watching old-fashioned linear TV—and many of them aren’t exactly spring chickens.

“Our most affluent viewers are adults 50+; boomers and Gen Xers,” Warner Bros. Discovery Chief US Advertising Sales Officer Jon Steinlauf told advertisers during the company’s New York presentation last week. “They account for over 50% of all US consumer spending. A large majority of them watch us every month.”

Warner Bros. Discovery is leaning into its older audience base (or at least trying to monetize it) by offering a benefit to media buying clients who don’t mind a few more gray hairs in their media buys. If clients pick broader age demos, like 18+ or 25+, instead of the more standard 18–49 or 25–54 age demos, they will receive pricing incentives, Steinlauf said.

Old news

If you blinked, you might have otherwise missed it: The upfront presentations spent plenty more time focused on sexy new streaming offerings that boast younger and often more diverse audiences than on linear TV.

Tubi, Fox Corp.’s free, ad-supported streamer, promises advertisers a median age of 39 years, while viewers watching CBS programming on Paramount+ are 18 years younger than viewers on linear TV on average, per CBS CEO and president George Cheeks.

“Streaming has brought in all new viewers, and younger, which is what streaming does,” Donna Speciale, president of sales and marketing at Univision, told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the Spanish-language broadcaster’s upfront presentation, which highlighted streamer ViX and ViX+.

That focus on streaming comes even as linear television continues to dominate the lion’s share of TV time in the US. In April 2022, cable viewing commanded nearly 37% of total TV time, while time spent watching broadcast TV neared 25%, according to Nielsen. Streaming across all platforms, meanwhile, made up just over 30% of all TV viewing time. (Univision, it’s worth noting, did devote some presentation time to its linear growth.)

Other execs, meanwhile, highlighted their winning position among viewers that are most attractive to advertisers. Kathleen Finch, Warner Bros. Discovery’s chief lifestyle brands officer, boasted that “nearly one-third of all cable-television viewers in the 25–54 demo are coming to our US ad-supported entertainment networks every single night,” while NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell touted NBC’s No. 1 spot in the 18–49 age demographic on linear. Fox Corp’s bragging rights included WWE’s Friday Night SmackDown, which is No. 1 in the 18–34 demo.

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But the focus on those younger demos can obscure the fact that linear viewers are, on the whole, a lot older. According to data Nielsen shared with Marketing Brew, the median age of a linear television viewer is 55 years old. Cable-news viewership is even older; on MSNBC, it was 68 years old in 2021, while CNN’s median age was 64 years old, according to The Washington Post.

The problem is that those older viewers on broadcast and cable are not the audiences that advertisers say they want. Traditionally, TV buying often focuses on audiences between the ages of 18–49 or 25–54, not audiences of all ages. That means that older viewers may not even count toward certain ad buys.

“In theory, you could say that there’s waste or spill because of how old it skews if it doesn’t align with your demo,” Meredith Zander, group media director at Fallon, told Marketing Brew.

There’s still value in buying on linear since you can still often reach your preferred audience through the sheer scale of linear TV alone, Zander said. But if audiences that are getting older become less attractive to advertisers, networks likely can’t command such high rates—or they might end up selling a lot of ads for things like supplements or reverse mortgages.

Oldie but a goodie

That could explain one reason why broadcasters are investing in ways to measure how advertiser dollars are working. That was on full display during upfronts week: take Paramount, which focused some of its presentation on its ad-buying platform EyeQ, or NBCUniversal Global Advertising Chairman Linda Yaccarino, who made sure to mention  NBC One Platform and its data stack NBCUnified during her time on stage.

If networks are able to show that ads shown to older audiences convert to site visits or purchases, that could potentially incentivize advertisers to target these viewers in future ad buys.

In Zander’s words, the networks want to be able to say something like: “Think beyond your 18- to 24-year-olds, because we’re showing you that 36+ is where it’s at.”

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