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Who Watches These Things?: An Examination of Daytime TV's New Era

It's still nearly all talk all the time, but is daytime's audience changing?

Between the networks and first-run syndication, there are currently 20 daytime talk shows vying for viewers every weekday morning and afternoon. They’re a wide assortment of hosts covering a wide assortment of topics. They range from The View to Jerry Springer to Maury, Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Wendy Williams, Steve Wilkos, Jeremy Kyle, The Doctors, Ellen, Rachel Ray, Anderson, The Talk, The Chew, Katie, Steve Harvey, and Live with Kelly and Michael, among others.

For years, the audience of daytime TV was considered to be stay-at-home wives and mothers. But the changing demographics and economics of the past 20 to 30 years has surely shifted this paradigm, hasn’t it? According to a Gallup poll conducted last year, only 14% of American women identify themselves as stay-at-home wives and mothers. And though 14% of 313 billion US citizens is still a hefty sum of 43,000,000, is that everyone tuning into The View and Later Today? Stay-at-home dads are a growing part of the populace and, presumably, the daytime TV audience. Their number has more than doubled in the last decade according to the United States Census. There are about 1.8 million Mr. Moms in the country today. But are these dads the reason Jerry Springer has been on the air for 22 years?

Daytime TV is still a vitally important, competitive part for the big networks and local stations as the plethora of current talk shows listed above illustrates. (And more are on the way including talkers hosted by Bethany Frankel, Queen Latifah and, god help us, Kris Jenner all due in the fall.) Along with talk, TV viewers are also being actively courted with daytime’s other dominant genres: court shows (Judge Judy, et.al.); a handful of game shows (CBS’s The Price is Right, its Let’s Make a Deal reboot and the syndicated Family Feud and Millionaire), the “info-tainment” contingent (Inside Edition, et.al.) and the remaining handful of enduring soap operas.

And people are watching. Judge Judy, daytime’s top rated show, pulls in an average of 9.9 million viewers a day according to Nielsen. Family Feud, currently hosted by the very busy Steve Harvey, is second with around 5.9 million daily viewers. And Dr. Phil is correct when he bills himself as daytime’s top-rated talk show; he has an average of around 3.8 million daily viewers.

Judge Judy is a powerhouse hit by anyone’s measuring and while the 3 to 5 million viewers of some of the other shows would not be enough to make these same programs hits in network primetime, they are very good for the daylight hours when less audience is available.

But the question remains: who is watching?

Actually, political correctness and supposed shifting demographics be damned, daytime TV is still all about women. According to a Pew research report last year, 73% of daytime talk show audiences are female.

Furthermore, women -- specifically women ages 18-49 -- are the viewers most sought by advertisers during daytime TV. And in their full-page ads in industry bibles like Broadcasting and Cable or Electronic Media magazines, the show’s production companies -- like Paramount or Warner’s Telepictures -- love to tout their success in this key demographic regardless of whether they’re their largest portion of viewers or not.

The dirty little secret of daytime TV, however, is that what these shows and their advertisers want, in terms of viewers, and what they get isn’t always the same thing.

In fact, according to an article late last year in Broadcasting & Cable, the median age for many daytime shows is actually rather advanced. The Talk, The View and The Chew have a median age in the range of 60; The Price Is Right’s median age is 64 and Dr. Phil’s is 59. As the Baby Boomer generation continues to age, these numbers won’t probably be reversed anytime soon. This “graying” of viewers in daytime goes to explain how some medium rated shows -- like Jerry Springer, Maury Povich and Steve Wilkos -- continue to endure. Not because they are more popular than some other shows but because they skew younger. According to a recent article in The Hollywood Reporter, Maury (with his DNA and lie-detector test-heavy hours) ranks number one in adult viewers age 18-49.

If, by and large, daytime audiences are getting older, there is also some evidence to suggest that they are becoming more downwardly mobile as well. As far back as 2001, research firm Frank N. Magid Associates reported that 40% of the daytime viewers make less than $20,000 a year, and 85% don’t have a college degree. In September of last year, Pew Research published the following findings: “Regular viewers of daytime talk shows are less educated than the public as a whole. Among this group, just 19% have four year degrees, 26% have attended some college and 54% have a high school diploma or less education.” That same survey also reported: “Daytime talk show watchers stand out as the least well off regular audience. About half (51%) have family incomes of less than $30,000, while three-in-ten have $30,000-$74,999 incomes. Just 12% have incomes of $75,000 or more.”

A casual review of some of daytime’s most active advertisers seems to support this thought-provoking picture. Innumerable daytime programs seem to sustain themselves by selling their ad time to an endless stream of community colleges, trade schools, and personal injury lawyers (all touting their 1-800 phone numbers). During a recent hour-long episode of Judge Alex, 10 of the 28 commercials aired were for either car insurance, personal injury attorneys, title loan companies, or a cable TV provider. Jerry Springer is even more limited. During a recent telecast, of the 25 spots aired during the show, nine were for lawyers; four were for some type of two-year school; and two were for insurance. And Steve Wilkos, a Springer spin-off that’s been on the air since 2007, is more of the same. Of the 35 ads recently aired during one of its hours, 12 were for law firms, 11 for colleges, and rest were divided between cable companies, CashPoint, insurance and one ad each for a vacuum cleaner and Vagasil.

All this is not to say that one can’t be college-educated and financially well-off to enjoy daytime TV or that people of various economic levels can’t need a lawyer or want to further their education, but, at the same time, this sort of targeted advertising can’t be accidental, not when it goes on this long and this consistently. The schools and colleges and lawyers who advertise must be getting results they want via these careful media placements.

There is something profoundly sad about the ramifications of such heavily slanted advertising and the message it conveys: get a loan or sue somebody, but by all means keep watching TV. The final connotations of these ads ultimately coming across as pitiful as some of the programming they surround.

Still, to be fair, it must be noted that other daytime series are not so hyper-focused or one-sided in their advertising. Reviews of the ads during installments of The Chew on ABC and an episode of the syndicated Millionaire showed a much more diversified collective including ads for Jimmy Dean Sausage, Dove soap, Empire carpeting, Campbell’s Soup, Liquid Plumber, Bounty, Land-O-Lakes, Charmin, Cheerios and other products.

Despite having many of our long-standing assumptions proved correct by the statistics above—73% women -- the amount of daytime TV advertising moving away from mommy- and baby-friendly items, seems to suggest other groups that might currently be emerging as daytime’s new majority. The cancellation of many long-running soap operas in recent years signaled an important shift that stations and the networks have yet to catch up to as they continue to chase an ever-shrinking audience of young and, one assumes, money-flushed women. If current trends continue, soon daytime TV may no longer be the most expedient route to the eyes and ears of female viewers, at least not those in that magical 18-49 age group.

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