Who Needs Millennials? TV Networks Push Middle-Aged Characters to Reach Older Viewers

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- More silver is being added to the smaller-sized silver screen, your television.

For all the talk about Millennials shaping the modern economy, advertisers and TV networks are boosting efforts to reach baby boomers, now in their 50s to 60s, and even Generation-Xers, those in their 30s to late 40s. The reason is simple: Older folks have money to spend.

"You have a very vital, engaged, age 50 and plus group of consumers," said Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the innovation group at marketing communications brand J. Walter Thompson. "[There's] huge growth in the number of these consumers joining gyms, launching businesses and buying beauty products. They want to be represented and empowered." 

The Big Four networks -- 21st Century Fox's (FOXA) Fox, Comcast's (CMCSA) NBC, Disney's (DIS) ABC and CBS  (CBS) -- are sporting 2015 fall lineups with a plethora of protagonists 45 years and older, a reflection of their maturing audiences, and advertisers' eagerness to reach consumers more likely to make large purchases.

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Take youthful 51-year-old actor Rob Lowe, who stars in the new Fox comedy The Grinder. There's also equally well-kept 51-year-old John Stamos leading Fox's fall offering Grandfathered. Stamos plays a freewheeling bachelor who finds out he's a grandfather.

NBC touted the new drama Shades of Blue, starring 45-year-old singer-actress-American Idol judge Jennifer Lopez as a sexy New York detective and single mom, according to the network.

CBS's new fall schedule includes the half-hour comedy Angel From Hell, starring 54-year-old Glee actress Jane Lynch, and ER medical drama Code Black with 55-year-old Marcia Gay Harden. ABC unveiled the comedy Dr. Ken, showcasing 45-year-old Ken Jeong, and the drama Oil, signaling the return to network TV of 65-year-old Miami Vice star Don Johnson.

According to a 2014 fourth-quarter report on TV audiences by Nielsen, viewers 65 and older watch the most traditional TV, on average 50 hours a week, compared to historically prized 18 to 24-year-old viewers, who watch 18.5 hours a week. Viewers aged 50 to 64 watch roughly 42.5 hours of traditional TV a week.

A 2014 report prepared by Oxford Economics for AARP says Americans 50 and older make up 80% of consumer net worth and account for $3.1 trillion in consumer spending.

"TV viewers, and particularly those who watch content only on TV and predominantly on TV, are getting older," said Paul Verna, a senior analyst at research firm eMarketer. "They're not the most coveted demographic, but they have a lot of purchasing power."

That purchasing power extends to streaming online TV outlets.

Although digital platforms are primarily trying to reach millennials, Verna pointed out, older heads of households are more likely to subscribe to and pay the bills for online streaming content services such as Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon (AMZN). Amazon landed a hit last year with its Golden Globe-winning comedy-drama Transparent, starring 70-year-old Jeffrey Tambor in the lead as a transgender woman. Netflix recently premiered the comedy Grace and Frankie, starring 77-year-old Jane Fonda and 75-year-old Lily Tomlin.

Older faces on TV screens also reflect changing demographics within beauty ad campaigns and films. Fifty-one-year-old Brad Pitt, 62-year-old Liam Neeson, 54-year-old Julianne Moore and 50-year-old Sandra Bullock headline tent-poles and Oscar fare.

Sixty-six-year-old American Horror Story Emmy winner Jessica Lange snagged a campaign as the face of Marc Jacobs Beauty last year, and 80-year-old author Joan Didion appeared in 2015 spring print ads earlier this year as the face of French fashion house Celine. Bullock graced People magazine's cover as 2015's "world's most beautiful woman."

"What's happening with TV fits with a big reappraisal of age," said Greene. "We're more comfortable not only with age, but also diversity on our screens. When you're looking at stuff geared to millennials and teenagers, it's more user-generated content online. With traditional TV, I can see shows with older protagonists and how they're portrayed -- as sexy, as interesting -- increasing."

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