Total ratings (Gross Rating Points) increase when a station's schedule arranges programs with "like" demographics together, because this increases the possibility of audience flow from one program to the next.

Demographics are simply the characteristics of people: age and gender, for example. Other attributes such as race, religion, marriage status, educational level, profession, and income are also demographics.

Why Worry?

Age and gender are the two principal demographic characteristics that TV audience research uses. They are the easiest demographics to obtain. But since demographic characteristics are clustered, knowledge of just a few things about a viewer -- like age and sex -- often permits generalization about other characteristics. This is due to the notion of "life cycle."

For example, 50-to-64-year-old couples are likely to live in small, mortgage-clear households with sufficient income and declining bills, they are likely to watch public TV and they can afford membership to their public TV station. Younger married couples -- beginning life with lower incomes, one or two children, a large mortgage and accompanying expenses -- might be viewing kiddy programs, but they are less inclined to be members. Thus, very rudimentary demographic information can lead to rather specific inferences bout individuals.

Why do public TV programmers worry about demographics? Programmers are concerned about viewer demographics because they affect public TV in several important way. Demographics help determine the size of a TV station's audience. A station whose schedule includes strong programs with different audiences from various age groups has a larger cume than a station that only successfully targets a few demographics. Total ratings (Gross Rating Points) increase when a station's schedule arranges programs with "like" demographics together, because this increases the possibility of audience flow from one program to the next. Viewer demographics also influence community support levels for membership, since some demographics are more likely to give money to a station than others.

Basic demographics like age and sex, because of life cycle implications, tell us a lot about TV viewing. For one thing, older people have more time to view than younger people. Women watch more television than men do. In general on public TV, women tend to like drama, film and culture more than men. Men are more likely to view science, nature and war documentaries. Older people prefer news/talk and nostalgic music; young people like comedy, science, film documentaries and how-tos.

Public TV has an inherent potential to attract different demographics with the broad spectrum of programs.

Public TV is not singularly targeted at the 18-to-49-year-old female, as the commercial networks are. One of the distinctive elements of public TV is the variety of programming available. This, public TV has an inherent potential to attract different demographics with the broad spectrum of programs.

Daypart Differences

While the potential for diversity exists in the public TV schedule, dayparts tend to have similar demographic skews at public TV stations around the country. While local schedule variations may cause some straying from the archetype, the dominant public TV demographic in daytime (7 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday - Friday) is usually 2-to-5-year-old children, who are in the audience to watch early morning, noon-hour and early afternoon kiddy programming. During the rest of the day, many stations program instructional TV for school consumption -- the audience consists of 6-to-11-year-olds and their mothers or fathers; and an over 50-year-old, heavily 65-plus female public affairs audience for the news programming.

Prime time also has an older audience, but it contains viewers of different ages that arrive to watch specific programs. Late fringe, by custom, has a younger public TV audience -- 18 to 49, both males and females, depending on local schedule options.

Here, for example is a portrait of composition of an East Coast public TV station: (Audiences peak in prime time and decrease from there, so the size of the audience is not the same through the dayparts in Table 1.)

Table 1 Percent of Audience by Daypart

18-34 35-49 50-64 65+ 2-17
Daytime (M-F) 13 6 4 6 71
Early Fringe 15 11 20 31 23
Prime Time 18 22 27 29 5
Late Fringe 32 23 30 15 0

Clearly, the composition of the public TV audience changes as the day wears on. This example is fairly typical of the system. The composition of public TV's audience varies most during prime time, the most diversely programmed daypart of the schedule.

There are some generalities that apply to prime time. First, commercial television targets young females, but public TV tends to do better with young males -- partially because the females are wooed by the commercial stations, and the young males are "adrift" and attracted to public TV's science, nature and reality fare. Second, because public TV schedules extensive amounts of news/talk, drama and performance programs, it has a large older female viewership.

Table 2 18-32 35-49 50-64 65+ 2-17
Wall Street Week 3 9 22 66 1
NOVA 23 33 19 25 0
MPT 3 17 40 39 0
Mystery 17 34 31 15 3
MacNeil/Lehrer 8 17 21 50 3

Different programming attracts different audiences. It is clear that different programs attract different demographics. Table 2 notes the differences in audience composition by age for several programs in the WHYY, Philadelphia schedule.

News/talk programs such as "Wall Street Week" and "MacNeil/Lehrer" tend to skew 65 plus, as do traditional dramas such as "Masterpiece Theatre." A few other dramas, "Mystery" for example, are younger in skew. Science programs also skew more broadly than news/talk, with significant appeal among 18 to 34 demographics.

When Is a Repeat Not a Repeat?

Interestingly enough, the same program played in different dayparts may attract different demographics. The how-to programs, recently enjoying a resurgence in prime time, tend to skew a bit younger in Saturday early fringe than they do in prime time (usually with equal ratings) -- demonstrating that each daypart has its discrete audience, and that a repeat does not simply recycle the same viewers, as demonstrated by the data in Table 3.

Table 3
18-24 25-34 35-49 50-64 65+
This Old House Sun Prime 14 31 22 19 13
This Old House Sat 6 p.m. 29 37 14 13 6

While both of these skews are young, on Saturday 18-to-49-year-olds comprise 66 percent of the audience for "This Old House", while on Sunday 18-to-49-year-old viewers comprise a smaller segment of the overall audience.

Just as age varies by program, so does gender. Compare audiences for "Lawrence Welk" and "Monty Python:"

Table 4 18-34 35-49 50-64 65+
Lawrence Welk

Women 0 3 24 38
Men 0 4 14 17
Monty Python

Women 6 15 0 0
Men 24 47 4 0
Course Corrections

Because programs differ in appeal, a schedule can be skewed demographically. A station finding a deficiency in demographic groups can remedy the situation by scheduling and promotion. Often, the solution to demographic dilemmas is through syndicated programming and/or repeats. A station attempting to increase its male audience buys or reschedules programs like "Soldiers," "Day the Universe Changed" or "World at War." A station that wants to reach more young females acquires a film package or plays more Brit-coms.

Thus, a station can manipulate audience size and composition by a rudimentary awareness of a schedule's demographic audience appeal. It can also plan a pledge schedule to attract demographics that are most productive for fundraising. These are a few of the very important reasons why programmer should worry about demographics.

This chapter was originally published in Current on 4/20/88.

Copyright 1998 TRAC Media Services, Inc.

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