"Younger" returns, but TV Land is still old

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Even as the contemporary sitcom premieres its fourth season, the cable network continues to attract an aging audience.

Given the hoopla from the TV Land PR department, one might assume 10 million viewers—many within the Millennial generation—will be watching the fourth season premiere of "Younger" tonight. Reality check: Only 563,000 viewers, on average, tuned in for season three last fall based on the Live + Same Day data from Nielsen, and just over 1 million, in total, caught a glimpse of "Younger" once the DVR usage was factored in.  

In short, "Younger" is not the big hit its publicists tout, at least by the traditional Nielsen ratings, and the channel continues to be a favorite among the silver-haired set. 

But TV Land continues to embrace "Younger"'s Generation X audience—no matter how small—with the hopes of also attracting those coveted millennials to modernize its image and attract a wider array of advertisers.

"What ‘Younger’ and the other original content bring to TV Land is a younger-aged audience that may not be necessarily watching the network," said media analyst Bill Carroll. "For any advertiser, that can certainly be advantageous. You certainly see a difference in the caliber of sponsors in primetime during ‘Younger’ and the other original shows. And there are far greater results in social media, which you just don’t see with its classic programming inventory."

He’s right. At a median age of 46 in season three, the average "Younger" watcher is 12 years below the cable net’s average age of 58. But to RNR Media President Robert Russo, that’s not enough to turnaround an aging channel.

"Personally, I think ‘Younger’ is a good show, and I understand why this is TV Land’s signature series at present. Every network wants cool and trendy programming to position to offer to its audience and advertisers," he said. "But ‘Younger,’ in some ways, also feels like a fish out of water in a sea of nostalgia. Other than a few select hours per week, TV Land is still a platform for older series."

TV Land's past
Launched on April 29, 1996, the initial theme at TV Land was quite simple: TV nostalgia, centered on series like "The Honeymooners" and "The Phil Silvers Show." Only one other cable network at the time—corporate cousin Nick at Nite—had the same focus, but that didn’t matter. Since Viacom owned both channels, Nick at Nite and TV Land shared the same advertiser base. Plus, TV Land skewed older, so the networks didn’t cannibalize each other.

A decade later, the obsession with youth became more prevalent among broadcasters and advertisers, which meant TV Land was just not a hip place to be. So, it was time for the cable net to tackle the original programming format, while not forgetting who its core audience was. 

Initially, it adopted a non-scripted WB series called "High School Reunion," along with modeling competition show, "She’s Got the Look." Both debuted in 2008 and capitalized on the growing reality TV craze (complete with a younger audience, which was the attraction for advertisers). Unfortunately, both also generated minimal interest, and it was not until 2010 that "Hot in Cleveland," featuring a bevy of classic TV stars like Betty White and Valerie Bertinelli, made its debut.

Like "Younger," "Hot in Cleveland" was never a true hit by traditional ratings. But that did not really matter. It was TV Land’s first original scripted sitcom and the first series the cable channel could sell in off-network (translation: back-end dollars). Plus, it combined nostalgia with a more contemporary flavor.  

Banking on the perception that "Hot in Cleveland" was a huge success—even though it averaged approximately 2.4 million viewers per episode in its heyday—a truckload of original comedies, also featuring the faces from yesteryear, joined the primetime line-up. These included "The Exes," "Retired at 35," "Happily Divorced" and "Kirstie." But none of them ever really clicked, and the sponsorship dollars were not enough to justify the added cost of the original production.

When cable began exploding with original dramas in 2014, the traditional multi-camera sitcom—now a TV Land staple—began to fall from grace. And, once again, it was time for the channel to pivot while not completely ignoring its past.

TV Land's "Younger" present
"Our shows have always been light in nature, fun and aspirational," TV Land President Keith Cox told me at the Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour. "We are TV Land, and scripted dramas are not our forte. But we wanted to embrace the Generation X audience, and we needed a show like ‘Sex and the City’ to do it, so I called Darren Star and that led to ‘Younger.’"

In 2015, TV Land focused on the next generation of comedies—this time with a single camera and edgier plotlines. Following "Younger," entries like "Impastor," "The Jim Gaffigan Show" and "Teachers" cropped up. Even A-listers Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone executive produced a show called "Nobodies."

The channel even tinkered with other types of original programming like the late night, non-scripted series "Throwing Shade," based on the podcast of the same name, which featured commentary on current issues. And the once annual special "The TV Land Awards," which honors classic TV stars, changed its name "The TV Land Icon Awards."

"I feel like all the Viacom networks are chasing millennials, and we are still more of an adult channel," said Cox. "For us, it is about reaching the Gen X crowd, but if we get some of the younger viewers, that’s awesome, too."

TV Land's future reality
The positive news at TV Land is that more viewers are now tuning in overall, with an increase of 23 percent in total viewers in primetime (692,000 through June 19). Ironically, however, the growth is magnified was a 35 percent rise in adults 50-plus (517,000), which is exactly the audience the cable net does not value. Results among adults 18-49 (147,000), adults 18-34 (46,000) and adults 25-54 (207,000) have not increased.

Since TV Land’s owner Viacom is reportedly in search of a 7 to 8 percent CPM increase in this Upfront selling season, the channel’s stronger audience, albeit with older viewers, will certainly not hurt. But, even as TV Land attempts to attract younger audiences with original programming and a show blatantly called "Younger," it can’t mask the older audience that remains its focal point.

"The true successful cable networks are the ones who most look like a broadcast network, not the more niche themed outlets," said Russo. "And no matter how hard TV Land tries, I still think the audience and buying community thinks of it as an outlet for nostalgia."