OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

When does a golden oldie turn into a tarnished moldie? That's the question Madison Avenue is asking in seeking to assess the worth of consumers as they age. The longtime obsession with youth shows few, if any, signs of abating, even as the massive baby-boom generation - the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 - matures.

Never mind that older consumers today are far more willing to spend money and try new products than "senior citizens" were decades ago. Forget that boomers are destined to become the nation's wealthiest generation ever as they inherit their parents' estates.

No, advertisers and agencies can't stop guzzling from the fountain of youth, convinced the 18-to-34 age bracket is the most desirable demographic because, the conventional wisdom holds, the bodies may be hard but the brand preferences are soft, especially during a life stage of household and family formation when consumers dispose of every disposable dollar (and then some).

That continuing conflict between perception and reality was amplified recently by two shifts in the broadcasting scene, both coincidentally at CBS outlets. One involves Don Hewitt, the founder and executive producer of the pioneering CBS-TV news magazine, 60 Minutes, who after 35 years at the helm finally agreed, at age 80, to a succession plan, effective in June 2004.

News programming skews older by its nature, which is why network newscasts are replete with spots for laxatives, Buicks and denture adhesives. But the audience of 60 Minutes has aged along with Hewitt and his colleagues such as Mike Wallace (84), to a median age of almost 60. And the show, once a fixture in the Nielsen Top 10, slid to 17th last season.

"The trick is to help them devise a broadcast that brings a new demographic in without losing the old one," Hewitt told the Washington Post. "It ain't easy, but it can be done." To accomplish a sprucing-up without a dumbing-down, CBS is turning to Jeff Fager, the producer of the spin-off show 60 Minutes II, who at 48 represents at least some of the intended new target audience.

At the sibling series, Fager hews to the Hewitt formula of blending serious journalism with lighter topics, but whether the 60 Minutes viewership is ready to watch reports on skateboarding and comic books remains to be seen.

Meantime, at the FM radio station in New York owned by CBS, the other shift is generating far fewer headlines. WCBS-FM has been the most successful "oldies" station in American radio, specialising in the musical format focused on 50s and 60s rock, rhythm and blues and "doo wop", the latter typically performed by groups with names that seemed evenly divided between cars (Impalas, Fleetwoods, Edsels) and birds (Orioles, Flamingos, Penguins).

WCBS-FM was highly popular - and profitable - catering to listeners aged 25 to 54, but as the Daily News pointed out last year: "Someone who was 30 in 1972 is 60 now, and even if that person hasn't moved to Florida or given up rock 'n' roll, he or she isn't nearly as attractive to advertisers."

So the station is culling its playlist, dropping most tunes from the 50s and augmenting the 60s sounds with songs from the 70s and even, gasp, the 80s.

So roll over, Chuck Berry, and tell Buddy Holly the news: Nowadays, even golden oldies can't get too old.

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