"Relevance" was the buzzword for the recent Letterman-in-for-Koppel dust-up, Koppel and his cornermen insisting that his "Nightline" broadcast on ABC has relevance, and to can it in favor of a sit-down comic from CBS would be a disservice to the public weal. Letterman's decision to remain at CBS aside, the argument underscored the loony predicates that drive programming decisions today. "Nightline" delivers a larger audience, but the wrong kind, one which has become irrelevant in the United States. To the advertiser, or more exactly, the agency that spends the advertiser's money, Koppel is as irrelevant as a Chris Matthews guest. "Nightline" delivers an audience 50 and older in abundance. No less an expert than the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz declares this to be an "aging audience that is dying off." (And he wonders if network news and the aging newscasters who deliver it can long endure.) Were that true -- the dying off part -- Social Security would not be imperiled and health care for the growing demograph of older people would not be the rising issue it has become.
But what Letterman has that "Nightline" hasn't is a younger if smaller audience -- a slice of the 18-to-34 year-olds that are the Holy Grail, or more improperly but accurately, Britney's navel , when it comes to the advertising dollar. It is axiomatic on Madison Avenue that only the young spend money, or make the spending decisions for those who have money. 'Twas ever thus. And the young, runs a corollary, don't watch news.
During the Gulf War, the ratings of CNN soared (well, as much as any cable ratings soar) and the question was asked (by me, who worked there at the time) what are we doing to maintain this advantage? The Oracles of Atlanta remained silent, the assumption being that those who had come would stay. Besides, this new cohort were those darn old folks, and isn't there something short of euthanasia that would get rid of them or exchange them for the young? A demographic bungee jump was tried at one point. Smack in the middle of the morning schedule, CNN initiated a program titled "Christy Brinkley in the Nineties." Had it been in her nighties it might have worked, but jutting out in the sequence of news segments it jarred the schedule without moving the ratings.
CNN is a niche into which certain pieces of information fit and where certain tastes are met. And now there are several hundred niches available to every place in America where there is cable and/or satellite service. Our multi-culturism has been met by a multiplicity of suppliers. How different from the days of the Big Three Networks when the evening news was a national town meeting. The network moguls -- the Paleys and Sarnoffs -- did this more for pride than anything; for, contrary to what has been said, networks are not licensed by government, only stations are, and there was no federal compulsion to build the colossi that network news divisions once were. The product, if skewed a trifle leftward, at least produced a simulacrum of reality that the nation as a whole could ponder and, when required, attain consensus.
No more. Now there is news to fit whatever taste in politics is out there. And whatever taste in entertainment. You may watch Letterman being careful or you may watch Dennis Miller and the "f" word. You may watch Koppel in the Congo, or Leno in double entendre. You can watch BET, the Black Entertainment Network, or one of the many Spanish-language stations. There is something for everyone. Some are saved, some salivate. But there is no national town meeting anymore, perhaps because there is nothing relevant to all of a nation of 280-million which has worshipped a multicultural nihilism to the point that there is now a channel for each one million.
But what if those who insist that older Americans are irrelevant to advertisers are the same statisticians who told us days ago the kids were drinking all that booze? The same folks who forget to tell the Martian lander the difference between metric and U.S. measurement? If the old folks are dying off in penury, why are "empty nester" home sales booming at half a million and up? What if some niche broadcaster decided to cater exclusively to those 50 and older? News, music, and entertainment to match?
We may never know. It may be, after all, irrelevant. Or, as we hear a lot nowadays, irrevelant.
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