Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Aging TV Audience and Escapism

“You can’t text on a television.”

Suzanne Garland recently made that observation about the disconnect between television and the rhythms of modern life to explain why the television audience keeps getting older, with television increasing its grip on older viewers even as younger viewers slip away.

Whatever the reason, the U.S. TV audience is aging at a surprising pace. According to one measure, the age of the average television viewer has increased by nearly 11 years in the last 10 years.

I’m not even sure that’s possible. That would mean that television is not gaining any net new viewers under the age of 50 — indeed, that it is losing viewers under 50 faster than viewers over 50 are dying.

But even if that measure is slightly exaggerated, television is increasingly the province of the retirement-age set.

This helps to explain the increasingly escapist programming on television. Older viewers are more likely to watch television as a way to make the world go away, and this escapist sentiment is creeping into the unlikeliest program categories. Reality TV, obviously, is losing its grip on reality, but so is news, as it is increasingly driven by drama to the neglect of facts.

The new escapism even extends to the personal transformation series Breakthrough With Tony Robbins, which starts tonight. Based on Tony Robbins’ track record, I am certain that the psychology and transformation strategies in the series are real. But the trailer for the series says that transformation is an adventure of exotic locations, extreme outdoor sports, and emotional confrontations, rather than the kitchens, auto repairs, and budget spreadsheets that could more easily be the focal points of personal transformation.

Television’s escapist tendencies are amplified by the current economic times. But any cultural trend toward escapism is self-limiting, as people eventually want to escape from the escapism. And perhaps that counter-trend is just around the corner.