TV’s Mysterious Fascination With Young Adults

The successful debut of Once and Again, the new drama (from the creators of thirtysomething, no less) about having a love life as a divorced parent, has drawn plenty of hosannas from TV-watchers who feared that the tube had forever been given over to Dawson’s Creek and its myriad clones. Once and Again’s success has been taken as a sign that a show doesn’t have to appeal to that desperately sought-after 18-to-34 demographic in order to be a hit.

As it happens, Once and Again’s success doesn’t necessarily show that at all, because it is in fact a huge hit with the 18-to-34 audience. Its share of TV-watchers in that group is as large as its overall share, and larger than the share received by new shows such as Freaks and Geeks and Now and Again. In fact, Ed Zwick’s show about yuppie parents is proving more popular with the young’uns than his show about yuppie kids, My So-Called Life.

What’s weird, though, is the assumption Once and Again had to combat in order even to get on the air: that nothing is more desirable than those 18-to-34 viewers. This is not an assumption unique to television. It’s certainly at work in movies, and has also been propelling changes in the magazine world, most notably in the ascent of pseudo-lad magazines like Maxim and in the pressure that’s being felt by older magazines to make themselves more youth-friendly. But the fact that the assumption is ubiquitous doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes sense.

Now, I’m part of this fabled demographic, albeit at the high end chronologically, and in a lot of ways–willingness to consume, love of new stuff, appetite for pop culture of all kinds–I’m an ideal target for advertisers. So I have no problem with TV programmers, Hollywood execs, and magazine editors trying to appeal to me. But I am perplexed by the avidity with which I am being courted, because of one simple fact: There aren’t that many of me.

I don’t mean that I’m unique. I mean that literally there are fewer–many fewer–people in my generation than in the generations ahead of and behind us. And while it’s certainly true that people in their late ‘20s and early ‘30s–at least in cities, where those people are less likely to have families–have a lot of disposable income, it can’t compare, in absolute terms, to that still wielded by the baby boomers. Even in the New Economy, earning power rises with age. Most people make a lot more when they’re 40 than when they’re 30.

So, why do advertisers think we’re the ideal audience? Partly because of our ability to spend without worrying about our childrens’ education; partly because some advertising is aspirational, so that you push products that people will want to buy when they can afford to; and partly because of ill-considered assumptions about brand loyalty, in particular the idea that if you hook me on a particular kind of car or suit or beer at 25, you’ll have me for life.

But surely an important reason for the hegemony of the young-adult audience is simply that young adults tend to be the ones who are buying advertising time, designing the ads, and, increasingly, writing and programming the shows and films that we see. I become the ideal consumer because my friends are the ones selling me the products.

The picture is more complicated than this, of course. There aren’t many 21-year-olds, even today, writing ads for Chiat Day or programming for NBC. (Though I suspect there are a lot of 30-year-olds doing those jobs who think they’re still 21.) And I’m not sure if Dawson’s Creek and Felicity are really targeted at 28-year-olds. (In fact, I pray they aren’t.) Finally, at the bottom end of the demographic, there a lot more people than at the top end. Those are the oldest Echo Boomers, and advertisers should really want them.

The point is not that the 18-to-34s should be disregarded. It’s just that from a purely economic point of view, they shouldn’t be regarded with such fascination. Last week, the combined ratings of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek added up to just 13 percent of all the people who were watching television while those shows aired. And even a very stylish 13 percent of all the customers you could be reaching is still just, in the end, 13 percent.