Joe Lavin

May 29, 2007

Get Them Young

Lately, there hasn't been a lot of good news in network television, but the news isn't all bad. According to a new study from the University of Washington, there's at least one group of viewers who are still watching television, those under the age of two. As The Boston Globe reported, this study "found that by age 2, 90 percent of children are watching television for an average of more than 90 minutes a day."

"Those are huge numbers, much bigger than any of us expected, and it shows that network television is back, baby!" A CBS spokesperson said Monday.

So far, it looks like CBS is winning the race among all infants with their heavy emphasis on crime procedural dramas. Fox, meanwhile, took the crown in the coveted 18-24 month demographic. Since those consumers can actually talk and ask their parents to buy stuff seen in ads, it has long been the baby demographic that Fox has targeted the most. Fox cites their educational fare such as "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?" and "Cops," as part of the reason for their strong lead among little ones.

Experts suggest that the infant demographic as a whole could be a valuable one since viewers that young are often unable to change the channel, and very few children under two are engaging in online piracy. At the very least, this is one audience that might actually watch commercials, simply because they have no other option.

Whereas adults are so often eschewing television for the Internet, instant messaging, and video games, babies rarely are distracted by other technology. "Except for the damn mobiles over their crib," a network source said. "We as an industry have to do something about the mobiles, and don't get me started on picture books!"

Another potential problem is that most infants are asleep before prime time begins. Could there be a switch in the times of popular television shows? Most agreed the answer was no. "What we're hoping for is something we like to call time shifting, where parents gradually shift their baby's bed times so that babies don't miss our exciting prime time slate of programming," an ABC spokesperson said.

Now that they have noticed the new audience, the networks might make some adjustments to their schedule. However, industry insiders did not expect significant changes since most network programming is already appealing to the lowest common denominator. (Interestingly, one of the shows appealing to the lowest common denominator -- "Are You Smarter Than a 5th grader?" -- might actually tell you what a denominator is.)

Surprisingly, even very young babies are watching television. As the Globe reports, "About 40 percent of 3-month-olds watch television or videos for an average of 45 minutes a day, or more than five hours a week." This, of course, worries many in the industry who certainly don't like the idea that babies could be watching videos rather than commercial television. Still, overall, the report contains many positives.

Unfortunately for them, though, many outside the industry haven't exactly embraced those positives, going so far as to suggest that this trend could cause damage to the minds of young children. In many cases, watching any screen at such a young age has been shown to lead to obesity and even attention deficit disorder. In short, it creates a pattern in which youngsters are used to spending large amounts of time in front of a television, rather than being engaged in other more active activities.

"We’re conditioning them to be couch potatoes," child psychologist David Walsh told The Boston Globe.

Of course, many television executives are angry at this implication. "They're saying that like it's a bad thing," one NBC executive pointed out. Meanwhile, others dismissed the notion that exposure to television at a young age could lead to problems such as obesity and attention deficit disorder. As one industry insider said, "That's just ridiculous. I've been watching TV since I was a month old, and I'm perfectly – hey, cool, Cheez Doodles! Oh, what were we talking about again?"

Meanwhile, the industry as a whole anxiously awaits next month's report on the TV listening habits of babies in their final trimester.

©2007 Joe Lavin

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