If you are between ages of 18 and 49, then you are a member of television’s most valued demographic, and advertisers will spend a lot of money for a minute of your time. Demographics are the quantifiable statistical information for a given population, such as age, gender, education level, and income level. In television, demographics are used to create a profile of the typical viewers of a show or network, and provide information that can be used for making decisions about scheduling, programming content, and advertising.
Each network and television show has an intended demographic. Some networks have more programming for older adults, some have a lot of programming that would appeal to a younger adult audience, and some have programming aimed at teens and children. Different days of the week, different times of day, and even each of the time slots in prime time have different target demographics.
You probably have notice that Saturday morning and weekday afternoons have more children’s programming even on the networks that are not exclusively for kids; and that weekday afternoons have a lot of programming aimed at homemakers. The first hour of prime time, 8 pm, often features shows suitable for the whole family; such as light-hearted sitcoms, contest format reality television, and teen melodramas. The second hour, 9 pm, has more sophisticated comedies and each network’s most popular hour long dramas, which are often suitable for both teen and adult audiences. And the last hour of prime time, 10 pm, has more sophisticated hour long dramas aimed at adults.
The idea of “prime time” may seem like an out-of-date concept in an age with so many options for how and when to view a program—recording on DVR, downloading or streaming from the internet, or on DVD—but ratings data show that most people still watch their favorite shows when they are first broadcast by the networks. Some people watch the first broadcast so they will be able to talk about the show at work or school the next day, and others watch so they won’t have to spend the whole next day avoiding spoilers. Many young people watch their favorite shows during the original broadcast because they enjoy using an online social media site, such as Tumblr, to live blog during the show. Therefore, the demographic information gathered about a show’s audience during its first broadcast still has much of the same value it had in previous decades.
Demographic information is used by advertisers to make sure they are reaching the right people with their ads. If they have a product that is for young men, they’ll want to advertise their product on a show that has a large percentage of young men in the audience. Advertisers rely on the Nielsen ratings system to give them information about a show’s audience size and composition. Nielsen collects data through a variety of means—including television set meters, people meters, and viewer diaries—to create a statistical model of a show or network’s audience.
The advertising rates that the networks charge are also determined by the demographic information gathered by Nielsen. It isn’t just the number of viewers that determines the cost of advertising on a show, because the age of the viewers may be even more important than the number. Many advertisers have products that may benefit more from having a commercial on a show with a large number of viewers in the 18-49 age group than from a show with an even larger number of overall viewers. The networks can often charge two or three times as much for a commercial spot during a show with viewers in 18-49 age group as compared to a show with the same number of viewer for a show whose audience is primarily either younger or older. But it not always the most expensive advertising spots that can be the most effective for every product: for example, it would probably be more effective to advertise the Cadillac CTS-V Sedan during a show that has an older and more affluent audience.
Demographic information can also be used by writers—those working on a freelance series script, creating a pilot, or writing a spec script—to make sure they are writing a show that will appeal to the target audience for a specific show, or for their intended time slot or network. For example, if a writer is writing something for a 9 pm time slot on a major network, they know that the show will most likely be watched by a younger audience than a show in the 10 pm time slot; and they can, therefore, tailor the content of the show to that audience.
It is usually very simple to figure out what the target demographics are for a network, time slot, or an individual television show—you just have to watch the commercials. The commercials give you a good sense of what age group and gender make up the target audience. If they are advertising Fruit Roll-Ups and Playmobil, it’s aimed at kids. If you see ads for Axe Body Spray and Call of Duty III, the target audience is young men. If you see ads for Maybelline Mascara and the Wonder Bra, it’s probably aimed at women. Guess who the target audience is if you see commercials for Centrum Silver and AARP’s Supplemental Health Plan?
So, now you know if you are writing a screenplay for a show in the 10 pm time slot on a major network, you will be able to include more adult themes and content. However, if the network’s ads for that time slot are for Fixodent and Depends Undergarments, you might want to consider replacing that romantic scene in the hot tub with a goodnight kiss at the front door.
Crafty TV Writing: Think Inside the Box, by Alex Epstein
Writing the TV Drama Series, by Pamela Douglas
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