Dumb and younger

ONE MEDIA CRITIC, Liz Swasey, won’t cry if and when Disney/ABC drops Nightline for Late Night With David Letterman. Her reason: On June 20, 1991, Nightline broadcast allegations that the Reagan-Bush team connived with future arms client Iran to unseat Jimmy Carter, then didn’t follow up when a congressional investigation “cleared” it in 1993.

Do right-wing media watchdogs have to reach that far back to find a beef with Nightline? The left-wing Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting regularly dings Nightline for skewing right and white in its choice of guests and experts and for favoring “elite opinion” and government sources (though not so much as Fox, or even PBS’s NewsHour). But give credit where it’s due: Ted Koppel is the sharpest, most serious anchor in the business, and his show is the best of the feeble TV news bunch. His show’s plight is a grim telltale of how the media and marketing winds are blowing in an anxious time, when no one knows anything and everyone’s afraid to get left out in the old—er, cold.

When ABC’s scheme became public, media experts and buyers swarmed to explain what it all meant: Media conglomerates couldn’t keep supporting prestigious “modestly profitable” shows like Nightline; they had to go for the bigger, younger audiences of hip shows like Letterman, whose ad time costs 38 percent more than Nightline‘s. But it turns out Nightline‘s audience is larger. And it has, according to Koppel (who’s not given to overstatement) earned ABC at least half a billion dollars in 20 years. May all your ventures enjoy such modest profits.

Ah, but it’s not the numbers, it’s the demographics, the marketeers say: You gotta get the young’uns, especially those elusive 18- to 34-year-old males, while they’re still forming habits and “brand loyalties.” Come 50 (and I admit, it’s coming toward me fast) and you become an Invisible One, commercially and demographically irrelevant. Boomers, the first generation to become a commercially targeted subculture, feared and decried as a hegemonic horde that would swamp everyone else, are now a pariah plurality, written off by marketers, media, and our president (who’s scurrying to perforate Social Security before boomer retirees can collect).

But where’s the logic? Nightline‘s audience is age 50 on average; Letter- man‘s is just four years younger—hardly springtime in Fort Lauderdale. The same marketing mavens who talk of snaring impressionable young consumers say brand loyalties are a thing of the past, that you never really get customers, you have to keep getting them again and again. And who are the adventurous novelty-seeking consumers? Seems like the 50-year-olds I know are always casting about for the latest restaurant, book, or travel destination, while the 18-year-olds are eating at McDonald’s and watching Scream 2 again.

This suggests two possibilities. Either advertisers and media executives, seized by collective delusion, are throwing money down the Younger and Dumber rat hole—or there’s a logic to the strategy that they don’t talk about. As the dot-gone bubble proved, any mania is possible, but I doubt this one is all delusion; money only goes down rat holes for so long without a payoff. So perhaps the operative word isn’t “younger” but “dumber.” Advertisers don’t just buy numbers and demographics; they buy “environments,” contexts conducive to their messages. At the most obvious level, airlines don’t want to advertise beside plane-crash stories. At a more pernicious level, if you’re trying to persuade people they need dangerous, gas-guzzling, road-hogging $50,000 mountain machines to drive to work, does it really make sense to advertise in media that stimulate their critical faculties and social consciences? Nightline may have gotten more fluffy and mawkish lately as Koppel takes nights off, but it still does five-part series on misery and chaos in Congo. Letterman’s a smart guy, but he spends his time (and his audience’s) talking about stupid stuff with stupid celebrities. His smug, easy sardonicism is a better chaser for mindless consumerism than expos鳠from Africa.

I admit I have no more statistical evidence for this theory than the go-young strategists do for theirs. But perhaps Disney—which also canned the discordant Jim Hightower soon after buying ABC—knows what it’s doing. Too bad.


Letterman’s ascent marks another, less-noted trend: the triumph of shmooze and shtick over news and analysis in this post-information age. And not just in late-night TV, where Nightline was always the high-minded exception. News anchors come not as chroniclers of the world’s woes but as guests at the family dinner table, with sappy banter that would send Huntley and Brinkley over the brink. Public radio is more and more about chatting and hamming, from Car Talk, Rewind, and the excruciating Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me to endless shmoozy “traffic reports” that fill the place of TV weather reports. We’re not bowling alone, we’re just listening alone. The airwaves have made conversation another spectator sport, like baseball, sex, and war.


Eric Scigliano’s media column appears every other week