Baby boomers are about to get a shock. For the first time in their adult lives, they are not going to be the center of attention for television programmers and advertisers.
And that means, starting this summer and accelerating this fall, boomers are no longer going to be the engine driving popular culture -- with their generational tastes, interests and shared memories celebrated above all else on the tube.
The new darlings of Madison Avenue and Network Row are persons in their 20s -- the group that advertisers have dubbed the baby-bust generation and that TV executives are talking about when they say they want "young viewers."
Warren Littlefield, Robert Iger and Peter Chernin, the entertainment presidents of NBC, ABC and Fox respectively, all stressed "young viewers" as they announced fall schedules last month loaded with shows for and about persons in their 20s and noticeably devoid for the first time of shows targeting the Big Chill gang.
As Preston Beckman, vice president for planning at NBC put it, "We're not trying to avoid reaching any specific group. But here is the reality: Every network that is No. 1 with viewers puts on shows that attract young viewers."
The schedules start to tell the story -- with the first of a wave of twentysomething shows, "Down the Shore," already arriving on Fox Broadcasting, the preferred network of America's new demographic darlings.
While not the best, "Down the Shore," which premiered last week, is representative. It's a sitcom about three men and three women -- all in their 20s -- sharing a beach house on the New Jersey shore.
"It's about different people learning to live together," in the words of one of its stars, Anna Gunn. And while it's also about bodies, bikinis and sex, it is about young people making the transition from living with their parents to living on their own.
The big twentysomething TV event this summer, though, comes on July 8, when "Melrose Place," a weekly dramatic series, premieres on Fox. It's from the producers of "Beverly Hills 90210," the hottest show on television. "Melrose Place" is about eight adults in their 20s living in one of Los Angeles' trendiest neighborhoods.
Focus on young adults
"The series will explore the lives, loves, joys and frustrations of young adults as they try to navigate the challenges of coming of age in the '90s," in the words of producer Aaron Spelling. It will be paired with new episodes of "Beverly Hills 90210" this summer, which will assure "Melrose Place" a huge audience of young viewers.
By fall, such shows featuring characters in their 20s will be all over the dial.
ABC has "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper," a sitcom about two women and a man -- all in their 20s -- starting careers and living together in the same house. It will air in the coveted Tuesday night slot between "Full House" and "Roseanne." There's also "Going to Extremes," about medical students on a Caribbean island. It's from the makers of "Northern Exposure" and follows "Coach," another ABC hit on Tuesday nights.
NBC has "The Round Table," a drama series about a group of twentysomething professionals who regularly meet at a Georgetown bar. It's another show from Spelling. CBS has "Freshman Dorm," a series about three women in college.
All in all, there are more than a dozen such shows featuring twentysomething characters and stars with proven twentysomething appeal -- like Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Robin Givens -- scheduled to debut this fall.
There are several reasons for the shift from the baby-boom to the
baby-bust generation, analysts say.
One of the biggest, not surprisingly, is money -- specifically, discretionary income.
"To understand what's happening, I think you have to start with spending income," said Neil Alperstein, who teaches advertising and popular culture at Baltimore's Loyola College. "There are still more baby boomers with more money, but for many of them that money is now tied up in education or a mortgage. And there is no longer the same spending income for them that there is for the 20-ish consumer."
Alperstein and his students just completed an ethnographic study of tastes, concerns and attitudes of 700 persons in their 20s, he said. The Loyola research grew out of a case study of a credit card company that is focusing its research on how to become the credit card of choice with the twentysomething crowd. Alperstein said there is so much recent interest in understanding this audience that there are now regular marketing reports on the baby busters.
Such market research done by and for advertisers is where TV programs initially come from. The research identifies needs and interests of specific audiences, and the networks try to craft shows that will meet those needs and interests in hopes of attracting those audiences.