HOLLYWOOD -- In a recent episode of Fox's animated hit King of the Hill, a crotchety old man was told to "go home and watch Touched by an Angel" - the hit CBS series airing the same hour.
Such barbs underscore the age-old problem CBS faces in the youth-obsessed TV business - namely, that buyers of advertising time see its program lineup as skewed too heavily toward an older crowd.
CBS' traditional older-audience profile came to the fore again during the November rating sweeps, when the network attracted the most viewers in prime time overall but ranked fourth - behind NBC, Fox and ABC - among adults 18 to 49, one of two broad age groups (the other being 25 to 54) against which the vast majority of advertising time is sold.
The product for sale in television is viewers, and media buyers covet them in that midrange demographic segment, raising a pointed question: Despite CBS' apparent success relative to the competition, when is a win not really a win?
The cold, hard facts were demonstrated by preseason advertising sales for the current year: NBC, which holds a wide advantage among adults 18 to 49, sold $2.15 billion in ad time - $900 million more than CBS, which also trailed ABC and, on a per-unit basis, Fox, which offers less programming per week than the other major networks.
In a more specific example, NBC's Seinfeld averages a bit more than double the total audience for CBS' Diagnosis Murder, which runs in the same time slot on Thursdays. Yet because the popular sitcom scores a bull's eye with key demographic groups while Dick Van [filtered word]'s show plays mainly to people older than 65, the disparity in their per commercial sales price is nearly tenfold.
Obviously stung by headlines citing CBS' sweeps victory, NBC issued a media release pointing out that 14 of CBS' shows rank in the top 20 among people 65 and older, but none crack the list of favorites among viewers under 35; by contrast, no Fox program made the top 20 with people over 50. NBC and ABC are represented in every demographic segment.
For its part, CBS is waging a renewed war of perception by trying to redefine the criteria for success, touting boomers - a 35-to-54 age bracket.
CBS has even initiated a direct-mail campaign telling advertisers to "go where the money is," noting that boomers and older adults have higher disposable income than those 18 to 34.