Tonight, the always-awesome Betty White hosts Saturday Night Live. White’s role is in large part thanks to the Facebook group “Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!” which at last count had 507,998 fans. In other words, she’s not there because NBC and SNL decided on their own volition that it would be great to have a host who is 5.5 times as old as Justin Bieber. But why not? What’s wrong with having old people on network television?
It’s a question which White’s Boston Legal character Catherine Piper asked in the Season 5 episode, “Juiced,” in which she aims to sue the TV networks for not programming for senior citizens. The episode came after it was well-known that Boston Legal would not return for another year, and it self-referentially mourned its imminent passing as the only network show with multiple central cast members over 50. As Piper complains:
We’re just shoved aside as a nuisance. I can’t even watch television shows, for God’s sake, because the networks consider me irrelevant. You’d think they don’t program for anybody over 50. Is it any wonder I’m out knocking over convenience stores?
Of course, she’s right (what, you doubted Betty White?!). The Nielsen demo that matters most to network TV is 18-49. Let’s put that into context, courtesy of the Census’ 2010 Statistical Abstract, which tells us that in 2008, 73.9 Million Americans were under 18, while 94 Million were 50 and over. In other words, the demo that matters to the networks represents only 45% of the population, while the one that they really don’t give a damn about represents almost a third of the population.
Why? In part because the market in audiences pays top dollar for harder-to-get audiences (i.e.: young men), in part because of an antiquated notion that old people don’t have much expendable income and can’t be moved by ads to change their long-held brand loyalties. I’ve yet to read anywhere that the latter has been proven since Betty White was my age, and instead it seems to be yet another example of what Timothy Havens calls “industry lore,” assumed yet baseless truths that calcify over years in Hollywood.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I invite anyone who thinks otherwise to take a trip to England. I once bet my father that you couldn’t go a day without seeing something nostalgic on one of the UK’s five terrestrial channels about World War II, clearly aimed at an audience who had been alive and well back then; he took me up on the bet, and proved me wrong … but only after three and a half weeks. Gardening programs make it into prime time, shows about antiques, and shows with old people in love. The visibility of senior citizens on Brit TV isn’t simply limited to sixty year-old guys with twenty year-old girlfriends, either: there are older women, and entire communities of old people. Brit TV looks like another planet for many Americans as a result.
So I’m excited to see Betty White, but disheartened that she’s almost in a category of her own. It’s also not surprising to hear that a whole slate of other guests may crowd her out (as Myles McNutt discusses here). Ours is a television system that is so hostile to the notion of being responsive to older people beyond playing older shows in syndication. Even the soaps are abandoning older viewers.
On one hand, I want to cynically note that White’s only got this hosting gig in the first place because a bunch of 18-49 year-olds demanded it. But on the other hand, I wish Hollywood would note that even that/my age group can get behind 88 year-olds. One of the White/SNL promos sees her seemingly joking about wanting to host the Academy Awards, but how about we go one better and demand she gets her own TV show (and not just a talk show), 61 years after The Betty White Show first premiered?