Bridging television's generation gap

January 25, 2004|By Nathan Bierma

CHICAGO -- If what we watch on television sends signals about how we see the world, then older and younger generations seem to be on different wavelengths.

A recent chart in The New York Times compared the list of the top 10 TV programs for viewers ages 18 to 49 with the top 10 shows for viewers 50 and older over five weeks. The differences were striking.

For younger viewers, the top show was Friends, followed by CSI, ER, Will and Grace and Scrubs. For viewers over 50, CSI reigned, followed by Everybody Loves Raymond, 60 Minutes, Cold Case and Jag. Only CSI, its offspring CSI: Miami, and Law and Order made both lists.

It's dangerous, of course, to try to read too much into TV ratings. For all its dominance in popular culture, Friends was watched by an average of fewer than 13 million people each week. That's less than one-tenth of Americans ages 18 to 49. Generalizations about entire generations prove unreliable. This twentysomething viewer would much rather watch 60 Minutes, an intelligent treatment of current events and culture, than Friends, with its superficial stories of the comfortable lives of six well-off whites.

Still, it's tempting to speculate why the ratings reflect so little similarity in the television tastes of different age groups. In the over-50 top 10, there were seven melodramas, one news program, and two comedies.

Except for the comedies (Raymond and, at No. 10, Two and a Half Men), the list represented a steady offering of stories about crime and the military (Jag and, at No. 7, Navy NCIS). These preferences seem to support the notion that we get more pragmatic about public order and safety as we get older, and more readily identify with police and military officers as they tussle with evil.

The under-50 top 10, meanwhile, was more diverse, ranging from the posh pad of Friends to the hospitals of ER and Scrubs to Survivor's island and Monday Night Football's gridiron. Except for the crossover hit CSI, the two other crime dramas that tied for ninth seem an afterthought. There was less monotony in subject matter on this list, but also more frivolity. You could see it as a refusal to get serious in a post-9/11 world, or, more likely, as a brief reprieve from those worries.

I thought of this generation gap after landing recently on a rerun of I Love Lucy. Unlike the ephemeral, packaged feel that most TV programs have today, Lucy is a show with staying power. And a show with no demographic. Anyone can appreciate Lucille Ball's hilarious facial contortions and outlandish dilemmas. Anyone can relate to the tensions and absurdities of each episode.

Television today, with its reliance on generation-specific catch phrases and its pursuit of niche audiences characterized by age, sex, race or hobby, seems less interested in hitting these common notes of everyday life and telling stories that cut across these categories of market research.

Maybe television could still try. What struck me the most about the two top 10 lists was how equally represented the two age groups were. The two top shows in each age category had weekly audiences of 12.6 million and 12.1 million, respectively, while the last entries on the lists each drew 8 million.

Even after the arrival of video games and chat rooms to divert their attention, younger viewers seem equally interested in hit shows -- the ones in which we follow the lives of the characters -- as are older viewers. You have to wonder when the makers of television will realize how balanced these groups are and stop fussing so much over the 18-to-49 demographic, as if they were the only ones who mattered.

By taking a broader view of who's tuning in, television could reclaim its power to tell stories that speak to us all.

Nathan Bierma is an editorial assistant at Books&Culture magazine. He lives in Chicago.

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