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The Residual Value of 18-24 Year Old Viewers

April 7, 2011

As mentioned in my post about pilot season, there are many rituals that television networks continue to perform which seem out of synch with the current state of viewing.  It appeared to me that one such tradition was touting the program ratings for 18-24 year olds.  When I saw that a few of my favorite shows weren’t doing well with younger viewers and might, therefore, be on the chopping block for the fall, I decided to ask a dozen of my trusted resources in marketing and advertising whether there was any residual value in tracking this sector separately.

I hope we can all agree that this age group watches far less “traditional” TV than their older counterparts.  According to The Nielsen Company, 18- 24 year olds took in an average of 124 hours of TV a month in Q1 of 2010 as compared with the 143 hours consumed by 25 – 34 year olds, the next age bracket up.  And most of the ones I know are decidedly “peer oriented”: more likely to be persuaded to try a product “liked” on Facebook or trumpeted on sites such as Yelp then they are to be moved by a conventional commercial.  If they are generally recognized as one of the smaller segments of the viewing population, what is the logic behind all this ratings-oriented attention?

Several participants in my completely unscientific survey indicated that while stay-at-home Moms used to make the vast majority of purchasing decisions, this responsibility has shifted depending on the product.  Families are likely to look to their young adult members when buying home computers, digital cameras, MP3 players, cell phones, and other electronic devices.  While this age group may be busy paying off college loans, these types of purchases are given very high priority in their households.  A 2007 studied showed that 97% of students owned a computer, 94% owned a cell phone, and 56% owned an MP3 player.  Additionally, members of that generation tend to be more in touch with their parents than previous generations, so their influence on items selected for the entire family carries more weight than in years passed.  And like most of us, they eat, clean, and put clothes on.

This age group also represents a large amount of potential buyers.  My favorite gifted market researcher, Jean Durall, says that according to the Pew Research Center there are 45.8 million prospective American viewers labeled as “Millennials”  ( ) While definitions of this generation differ, (and could go as old as 29 and as young as 10), it certainly covers 18-24.  Because they are spending increasing time watching video on other sources — including the Internet and mobile phones — television networks are paying attention to their behavior and trying to predict how viewing patterns will evolve.  An investor in a new viewer tracking system adds that more companies are requesting any data they can put into the mix when deciding where to spend their advertising dollars.  While Nielsen hasn’t completely conformed to the changes in viewing habits, they are still the most recognizable name in supplying that type of detailed information through their ratings system.

Another industry professional currently working as a marketing program manager for a major consumer electronics producer points out that even though 18-24 year olds travel a range of paths to brand loyalty, companies want to get their attention any way they can including standard commercials.  By building relationships and recognition with young consumers now, they are creating a pattern and potentially developing a lifetime of opportunity to do business with them.  As Durall puts it, “Advertisers care about them both for their current purchasing power and for their future impact on all areas of commerce and culture.”

So, OK, I get it.  Now if I promise to follow the lead of a few of my 20-something friends, can I please have one more season of “The Chicago Code”?

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