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'X' marks the generation that set the pace for 'Y

Sunday, May 02, 1999

By Rob Owen

This excerpt from Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen's book, "Gen X TV: 'The Brady Bunch' to 'Melrose Place'" (Syracuse University Press, $17.95), details the reasons advertisers were ga-ga about Generation X viewers in the early 1990s. Today, advertisers use the same reasons for targeting the younger siblings of Gen X, members of Generation Y.

By targeting a specific segment of the market, the Fox network has been able to not only survive, but thrive. During the 1993-1994 TV season, CBS's "60 Minutes" finished second in the Nielsen household ratings, while Fox's "The Simpsons" ranked 49th. Yet 30-second ad rates for both shows during the 1994-1995 TV season were both set around $160,000.

Even though "The Simpsons" had fewer viewers, it had younger viewers, which to advertisers is more important than the millions of older viewers who watch "60 Minutes." People in the 18-24 age range only watch between 20-25 hours of TV per week, while people in the 55+ age group watch between 35-40 hours per week. Because younger viewers aren't watching as much TV, they're more difficult to reach, so advertisers are willing to pay a premium to reach them. Advertisers who want Gen X customers are also sometimes willing to pay more (or an equal amount) to reach fewer viewers if they think there's a greater chance those viewers will pay attention to their commercials.

"The problem for us as a network is that we don't get paid by the intensity that a show is watched, we get paid by the number of people that watch," said Charles Kennedy, Fox vice president of program research. "Now we've tried to incorporate that into our rate structure and into our selling of the ads. We go to advertisers and say, you know when people are watching a 'Melrose Place,' they're watching with more intensity, they're not switching channels because there's a large group [watching together], and nobody wants to miss what comes on in the next minute, so your ads get seen at a higher rate. Your ads have a chance to be exposed to groups rather than individuals and have reaction that way. So there is value to an intensely and loyally watched show."

This helps make up for the fact that Xers brought up on TV have too much going on in their lives to watch as many programs as they once did.

"My TV viewing now is an extreme fraction of what it once was," wrote Jennifer Hale, 25, in an e-mail message. "It used to be that I'd turn on the TV the minute I got home, and just use the audio as background noise, but now I only turn it on when there's a specific thing I want to watch. That sound you just heard was millions of advertisers bursting into tears. I'd still say I probably watch between 10 and 15 hours a week, total, but in high school or before it was easily, I don't know, 35? 40? ... Yeesh. Makes my eyes blur just thinkin' about it!"

Fox's Charles Kennedy cites these as the main reasons advertisers target Generation X. He says younger viewers are valued because:

Xers are more willing to try new brands or switch brands because they haven't developed intense brand loyalty.

Younger people need to buy more things, because they're just beginning to establish a household. They do a lot of first-time purchasing of a variety of products and some are even raising kids.

They spend a lot. Older people grew up during recessions and wars, younger people grew up during an era of consumerism. Xers will buy not only what they need, but also what they want. "They may not make a lot of money, but they'll still own Gap jeans and go to Starbucks," Kennedy said.

Xers place more value on image. "They may not want to admit it," Kennedy said. "And often times that's part of the image, too. Younger people have a need to say things about themselves and define who they are. And you define who you are in one small way, however superficially you think it is, by the products you use and surround yourself with."

Many Xers will undoubtedly read this and say it's untrue. "I'm an individual," they'll cry. "I can't be classified, I'm unique!" That may be, but how else does one explain the success of The Gap? Or what about Urban Outfitters, a Gap-like store for the grunge crowd that specializes in clothing that looks like it came from a thrift store but is sold at a department-store price? While I can't say I would buy a deodorant because "it's cool," I think to a greater or lesser extent we do buy items based on TV advertising. If we didn't, would companies still advertise there?

Charles Kennedy of Fox said the rationale for reaching Gen X outlines why the network continues to pursue the younger demographics. While Fox is fighting to broaden its appeal to include the complete 18-49 audience, Kennedy said the network will never target people over age 50. Instead, people will stop using Fox at a certain point and they'll be replenished by younger viewers. Fox is viewed by many as the Gen X network today, but if Fox sticks with its plans to remain a network for the under-50 crowd (and in most cases Fox appeals primarily to the under-40 set), Gen X will be out of its target demographic by 2020.

While all the TV networks want to attract Gen X viewers, Fox is certainly courting more aggressively than the traditional networks. "They were very effective at it and once they got the hang of it, they were very effective at it to the point where they were able to cannibalize viewership from the other networks," said Betsy Frank of Zenith Media. "But this is not the be-all, end-all audience that advertisers want to reach. In general this is not a terribly affluent audience. It's not a terribly loyal audience, but if you're selling soft drinks or jeans, it's absolutely where you want to be."

Advertising Age critic Bob Garfield said Xers are important consumers to manufacturers of these specific products. "At the ages they are now, they're buying the vast majority in certain categories like soft drinks, fast food, low-cost fashion wear and music," Garfield said. "In those specific categories they are an economic force, and as they age will work their way through other categories and continue to spend large amounts of money as a generation. And there will come a time they will be heaviest users of incontinence diapers."

For more excerpts from "Gen X TV" visit the book's Web site at www.albany.net/~genxtv.

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