Why Aren't There More TV Shows for Boomers?
I'm not suggesting that any of us should emulate the protagonist in the Bruce Springsteen song "57 Channels (And Nothing On)" who shot a hole in his TV screen because he was discontented with his viewing choices. (And who knows -- maybe the guy would be happier today, now that there are hundreds of new digital channels and HD.)
But boomers do have a grievance as far as TV is concerned. Why are there so few TV shows aimed at us? I'm talking about shows with protagonists from our generation that deal with problems and situations and feelings to which we can relate?
Think about it. We were the first generation who grew up watching the tube, back when it came in an imitation woodgrain cabinet and had rabbit ears on top. Our eyes have stayed glued to it pretty much ever since. People between the ages of 50 and 64 are the largest single segment of the TV viewing audience, and as this 2010 Associated Press article details, the average age of network TV viewers is now 51. Moreover, boomers are a lucrative market for advertisers since we make about 55 percent of the consumer purchases in this country, according to Nielsen.
Over the years, TV executives have made at least a few attempts to appeal to us. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the initial wave of boomers were in their twenties, the networks included young newlyweds Gloria and Meathead in All in the Family and came up with the contrived but enjoyable counterculture-themed cop show The Mod Squad.
In the late 1980s, ABC tried to connect to my own Generation Jones with Thirtysomething, a semi-realistic depiction of that moment in time when it started to dawn on us that we were adults with responsibilities, even if we still felt rebellious listening to The Clash on our Walkmans and wearing jeans with our suit jackets to the office. (BTW, have you ever wondered what those Thirtysomething characters would be doing today? Would Michael, having flamed out in the advertising industry, be managing a Starbucks and staying up all night writing unpublishable fiction? Would Elliot finally find his calling in life, directing wacky Geico commercials? Would Hope and Nancy run off and join an ashram in Vermont?)
These days, we have at least a handful of TV characters who qualify for AARP discounts. There is the trio of everymen on TNT's Men of a Certain Age, which nails the crises and the compromises that confront American males on the cusp of 50 pretty well. And there's Mark Harmon's laconic, hard-nosed Navy cop Jethro Gibbs, who proves every week on CBS's NCIS that an actor who'll turn 60 this year can be a masterful, even sexy, action hero. We've got former Gidget star Sally Field as Nora Walker, a widow trying to get past her late husband's infidelity and start a second act in Brothers and Sisters, though that show may not survive past this season. There's sixtysomething Ed O'Neill trying to figure out how to survive in a May-September second marriage to a beautiful younger woman in the hit comedy Modern Family and his former Married...with Children costar, Katey Sagal,as the conflicted matriarch of a biker gang in FX's Sons of Anarchy. And though I haven't yet watched the show, I have to give writer-producer David E. Kelley some points for casting 62-year-old actress Kathy Bates as the protagonist of his new legal drama, Harry's Law. (Here's a recent NPR interview with Bates.)
But that's about it. For the most part, my generation remains an afterthought on TV, to the extent that when ABC launched a series called My Generation last fall, it was about a bunch of twentysomethings in Austin reminiscing about their senior year in high school in 2000. (It only lasted two episodes, which ought to teach TV executives that copying the premise of a Swedish TV show probably isn't the best idea.) For some reason, TV moguls don't seem to believe that we want to watch actors and actresses (particularly the latter) who are our own age or that midlife and later can provide enough situations with sufficient drama, romance and humor.
The tube's increasing ageism makes me yearn for the days when the original Hawaii 5-0's Steve McGarrett was a grownup pushing 50 and full of world-weary wisdom. Instead, in the contemporary remake, we get a Gen-Xer who seems to think good police work is about driving fast and dangling suspects from rooftops. That's almost enough to make me wonder if the guy in the Springsteen song who put a slug in his screen had the right idea after all.
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