MEDIA: FORUM; Can TV still deliver the coveted youth audience?

Last week’s row about the rejigged Barb panel in London highlighted a fact that no-one in the industry likes - the average age of the population is increasing. Is TV bound to lose its battle to attract younger viewers? And anyway, why are agencies so obsessed with targeting an endangered species? Alasdair Reid reports

Last week’s row about the rejigged Barb panel in London highlighted a

fact that no-one in the industry likes - the average age of the

population is increasing. Is TV bound to lose its battle to attract

younger viewers? And anyway, why are agencies so obsessed with targeting

an endangered species? Alasdair Reid reports

It is the classic planning cliche. It doesn’t really matter what the

product is, the target market always seems to come out the same - 16- to

34-year-old ABC1s. Commercial television’s programming directors spend a

disproportionately large amount of time worrying about delivering those

young ABC1s in the right quantities and when agencies and television

stations fall out, it’s almost sure to be one of the bones of


The big problem, of course, is that young affluent consumers are an

endangered species. Ten years ago, there were 7.5 million 16- to 24 -

year-olds, now there are six million - a decline of 20 per cent. The

Baby Boom generation has passed into middle age and the birth rate has

been falling steadily since the 60s. Life expectancy has also been

increasing. The country’s demographic profile is changing rapidly.

Britain, in short, is greying.

Last week, the issue was highlighted by a row over changes to the Barb

panel in London. Carlton and LWT have funded the addition of an extra 50

homes to boost the sample size and make it more representative of the

population as a whole. Agencies were not best pleased. As the

Association of Media and Communication specialists pointed out, the

heads of these additional households will come almost exclusively from

the C2DE over-55 bracket.

This is superficially good news for ITV - this demographic group likes

the channel a lot. In the headline-grabbing ratings war, Coronation

Street will reap more benefits than EastEnders. But that isn’t much good

if advertisers aren’t interested in headline figures. It is a dilemma

that is hitting ITV first but other mass-market channels will also have

to face it sooner or later.

Are agencies right to be obsessed with targeting younger viewers?

Shouldn’t they acknowledge the UK demographic shift? After all, a

battalion of Janet Street-Porters on infinite budgets won’t deliver

ratings if the viewers just aren’t there. Those that are around will

probably have far better things to do, like interacting with their

computers or listening to music.

Phil Gullen, the managing director of Carat Research, says that it is

inevitable that people put a premium on scarce commodities. ‘In a

campaign against all adults, the younger ones are always the hardest to

get because they don’t watch very much TV and even when they do, they

don’t have very high viewer satisfaction levels. Consequently, you spend

more time and energy reaching them,’ he says.

But won’t it become a case of diminishing returns? Isn’t inflation

against younger target groups - already a problem - going to spiral out

of control? ‘The solution is never going to be easy,’ Gullen admits.

‘The way to hit younger groups is not through television at all but

through magazines. New channels aren’t always the answer because they

just offer fragmentation rather than exactly the audiences you are


Paul Longhurst, the executive media director of Ammirati Puris Lintas,

argues that the question goes beyond media. ‘It may well be true that

younger, upmarket audiences are not as valuable in marketing terms as we

think they are, but that is a huge marketing debate,’ he says. ‘While we

are still in a situation where we want to reach that group, the argument

becomes one of wastage and efficiency.

‘People are right to be concerned about ITV and the Barb panel situation

in London. The headline figures for ITV will obviously improve,

especially when it comes to share of viewing figures. But I can’t

believe that anyone in the industry will be fooled by that - agencies

don’t do deals against share of viewing. Everyone will be analysing the

individual demographic groups within the overall figures. If this skews

ITV’s audience away from the premium demographics it will allow Channel

4 to charge more and that will hurt ITV’s income.’

Tony Wheble, the broadcast director of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, is not

convinced that people are all that obsessed with younger target groups.

‘A fascination with young audiences is something only certain parts of

the advertising industry are wrapped up in,’ he argues. ‘It’s mainly a

creative thing. Everyone wants to make young, trendy ads. It’s less of a

concern to the big advertisers. They are still concerned mainly with

reaching the right audience for their product. For big consumer

advertisers that’s usually a broad-based audience.’

He concedes that it is getting harder to reach the younger component of

that audience, but he believes that there is scope for an element of

give and take in the market: ‘The television stations are worried that

advertisers are increasingly turning to other media to reach younger

target groups and that television will lose market share.’

Steve Platt, the sales director of Carlton UK Sales, doesn’t deny that

it will get increasingly difficult to deliver younger audiences but he

insists that ITV hasn’t given up the game. ‘The demographics speak for

themselves and it is hard for us because we have to be all things to all

people and can’t really get into niche targeting,’ he says. ‘Clearly,

though, some parts of the schedule do deliver. The Brit Awards delivered

more 16- to 34-year-olds than any programme on any channel this year.

‘Having said that, I do have to admit that it is getting frustrating to

see so many agencies targeting 16- to 34-year-old ABC1s. You see the

products that want that audience and you think they can’t be serious -

they should be targeting all adults. To some extent it’s a fad and

certain agencies believe it gives them certain credentials in the eyes

of clients.

‘But there are other reasons, too. If you pretend you’re targeting

against a sub-group and you get a good deal against that sub-group

you’re also getting a good deal across all adults. If I was being

cynical I’d say it was no more than a negotiating ploy. We have to be

aware of that and respond accordingly.’