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Assignment America: Doddering Ted Koppel

By JOHN BLOOM   |   March 11, 2002 at 12:47 PM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, March 11 (UPI) -- Forty years ago Pepsi-Cola -- when people still actually called it "Pepsi-Cola" -- launched a television ad campaign called "For Those Who Think Young."

It was the beginning of the end for guys like Red Skelton, Arthur Godfrey, Milton Berle, Jack Paar -- because, in fact, everybody was thinking young. (One of the few careers spared was Ted Mack, whose principal advertiser was ... Geritol.)

And it all made sense in 1961. After all, the new president was young. (A 43-year-old had just taken over from a 70-year-old.) His Cabinet was young. Elvis was young. The post-war population was young. The boards of major American corporations, including Pepsi, were getting younger and younger.

Pepsi's new jingle however, was technically NOT young.

They bought the rights to Eddie Cantor's 1928 hit "Makin' Whoopee!" -- but then they wrote new lyrics, turned it into "The Pepsi Song," and by God it was young, young, young. (Their previous jingle was called "Be Sociable." Now THAT'S not young.)

Madison Avenue was actually ahead of the times. It would be five years before student protesters started shouting "Don't trust anyone over 30!" But the change had already occurred. It's now a cliché to say that the baby-boom generation changed America forever, but this was the baby boom in its prime, when they were becoming teenagers and young adults. Who WOULDN'T want their advertising directed at the largest free-spending demographic group in American history?

But now it's 40 years later and ABC is talking about taking Ted Koppel's "Nightline" off the air because ... it's not young. Oddly enough, the people who actually watch "Nightline" are the same ones who were brought up on "The Pepsi Song." They're just not young anymore. The baby boomers are still the largest demographic group. They still have the most money.

But here's a couple of Madison Avenue numbers that don't lie:

"Nightline" brought in $73 million last year in ad revenue.

"Late Show with Letterman," with a smaller audience, brought in $175 million.

Conclusion: there aren't as many advertisers who want Ted Koppel's audience as there are who want David Letterman's audience.

Given those numbers, you would think people would say, "Oh, hell, I guess they have no choice. People get old. Generations pass." But this has become a titanic public-opinion battle, with all kinds of heavyweights laying into ABC for being irresponsible money-grubbing doofuses who are determined to pull the nation farther into the abyss of triviality.

And what's remarkable about it is the level of naiveté exhibited by America's media elite when they discuss it.

Barbara Walters launched a defense of Koppel on her show, "The View," saying that "to be treated as dispensable and irrelevant is thoughtless and hurtful." Koppel himself chose The New York Times op-ed page as his forum for bashing his bosses and defending what he does. Dan Rather weighed in with his op-ed piece supporting Koppel.

And they all said the same thing. News shows like Koppel's are "a public trust." (Like a museum? Should we have Kopplethons to raise money for "Nightline"?) America needs serious news analysis more than ever. (Does that mean we need it at precisely 11:35 p.m. on a certain network?)

ABC is a crummy outfit that didn't even tell Koppel they were thinking about getting rid of him. (Well, please, welcome to just about every corporation on the planet. You don't make the guy nervous if you still think there's a chance you'll keep him.)

The first time this happened -- at least the first time I know of -- was when "Star Trek" got cancelled in 1969 after only three seasons. It was a ratings winner, too, but the demographics were considered too old and too male. That show not only had fans, it had such devotedly loyal fans that they agitated for a return of the show for 18 YEARS.

It was finally brought back as "Star Trek: The Next Generation." And the key words there are "next generation."

What had happened is that the show had developed a much larger, much younger, much more female audience in reruns. Although Trekkies would like to believe that the network made the wrong decision in 1969, in fact the choice could still be defended in terms of changing economic conditions and changing public taste.

If someone really wanted to make a spirited defense of Ted Koppel, the place to look is the assumption that older viewers don't spend as much. First of all, this looks virtually impossible on its face. We live in a country where 70 percent of the capital is concentrated in the hands of people over the age of 65. (Yes, that's what I said.)

But the argument goes that, once people pass the magic age of either 39 or 48 -- depending on what products you're talking about -- they become set in their ways. They don't buy anything new. They don't try anything new. Their final purchase is a cane rocking chair at Cracker Barrel, and they spend the rest of their lives sitting on the porch like exotic orchids.

Yet we know this is not true. We've had dozens of books, sociological studies and census reports showing that the middle-aged and elderly are so different from their counterparts in 1961 that they're almost frighteningly youth-obsessed. Women have babies at 50. People start new careers at 55. The novelist who in 1961 would have been washed up at 25 if he didn't get the right reviews can suddenly leave his law practice and write a best-seller. Retirees move to Santa Fe and open Zen massage spas. Couples in their 80s live in recreational vehicles -- a trend unknown anywhere else in the world -- and refuse to go into retirement homes until they're unable to walk, speak or see. The baby-boom generation simply reinvents the rules every five or ten years so they can remain in control. They want to be immortal.

So why wouldn't they be a prime market for advertisers?

In a few cases they are. Glenn Schaefer, president of Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, one of the "big four" chains of casinos, told me that he targets advertising at age 49. Younger people don't interest him, because they don't have enough money. (But Schaefer ALSO said his advertising is designed to make 49-year-olds feel like they're 19.) Court TV advertises so heavily to the older generation that some days every commercial seems to be for either diabetes medication ("I'm Wilford Brimley for Liberty Medical") or incontinence products.

Intellectual newspapers like The New York Observer run dozens of ads for expensive real estate and design products that very few people under the age of 35 could ever afford.

Moreover, Madison Avenue is not even Madison Avenue anymore. The days of a monolithic New York-based advertising industry are over. There are huge ad agencies in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, not to mention influential boutique operations in places like Boulder, Austin, Madison, Miami. And most of these agencies are run by ... baby boomers! Guys who have reinvented their lives, Bill Gates-style, by working outside the traditional "gray flannel suit" system.

So what's causing the obvious prejudice against simply continuing to market to their own generation?

If you talk to magazine publishers and network ad managers, the problem is the "media buyer." I'm going to have to use some anonymous quotes here, because no one wants to speak publicly about this, but New York is still the place where the ads are actually bought and sold, and that power-lunch stock market is made up almost exclusively of people in their twenties.

"When someone graduates from the Harvard Business School, or Stanford, or Wharton," says a respected publisher who has worked for many famous magazines and now works for a network, "he or she -- and it's usually a she -- can get a very good entry-level job as a media buyer. The networks want the 24-year-old workaholic because they believe they're more in tune with the young generation. The problem is, these women don't know anything except the young generation. But that's who decides which shows get the ads."

"The average media buyer," says an editor who has run two nationally known magazines, "is 28 years old, female, dresses in designer fashions, carries a Prada purse, spends her weekends at trendy parties in the Hamptons, and is always talking about 'the buzz.' We have full-time employees who work to get us mentioned in the gossip columns, because that's what they read. We have to make them believe that we're hip."

"We had a reader with an average age of 49," said the editor of a national political magazine. "It was too old. I would say, 'But what about liquor? What about cigars? What about wines that you don't appreciate when you're young?' I don't drink or eat or buy the same things now that I bought when I was 20. I used to drink Blue Nun wine!"

But the sacred principle to the "media buyer" is "brand loyalty." The idea is that people choose brands early in life and then use those brands forever. There are advertising experts who disagree. Jerry Della Femina, the flamboyant New York restaurateur and advertising agency owner, told The New York Daily News, "Brand loyalty is a crock! It's a preconception that's been around since J. Walter Thompson said, 'Target people 18 to 45' -- because people died after 45."

At any rate, this is the only area of debate where aging shows are going to make any headway, because the perception of being too old for the market is ultimately more important than the reality. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, cable networks had two of the highest-rated franchises in TV history -- professional wrestling and NASCAR racing -- and yet they still couldn't score "premium" advertising. The shows were perceived as white-trashy, low-income and too old.

In fact, the cable networks commissioned their own marketing surveys proving that that was simply not true. Both wrestling and NASCAR racing had upscale suburban-dwelling consumers with loose pocketbooks. It didn't matter, ultimately, because the sponsors themselves -- not just the media buyers -- REFUSED TO BUY THE NUMBERS. Even if they believed the numbers, they didn't want their Gucci loafers being identified with pro wrestling and stock-car racing.

And something similar, I suspect, is now going on with Ted Koppel's "Nightline." Koppel is 62 years old. He can't wear leather pants or hang out with Puff Daddy Combs. To the 28-year-old media buyer lunching at the Four Seasons, he will always be old. But more important, to her ultimate bosses, the advertisers in Cincinnati and Chicago and Denver, he won't be worth the kind of money you have to shell out to be on the Big Four networks. Even if they're marketing directly to 62-year-old people, they want 62-year-old people who look and act like 40 year olds.

There's a place for Koppel, but it's probably a place like Larry King has on CNN, where the numbers, and the stakes, are lower.

No one should be surprised by this. Marshall McLuhan told us half a century ago that the medium is the message, and the cool medium of TV will always reflect back to the culture whatever comforting images the culture needs. Raging against it, Dorian Gray-style, just makes you look like silly.

--

(John Bloom writes several columns for UPI. He can be reached at joebob@upi.com)

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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