COMMENTARY Ageism runs rampant in shows

Nothing I've written about television has generated more response than a couple of recent columns prompted by CBS' cancellation of "Judging Amy" and three other series whose audiences were said to "skew" older -- that is, older than 49.
It was the most aggressive housecleaning by a network since the early 1970s when CBS, in this case determined to go more urban, ditched a turnip-truckload of rural-rooted shows -- "Mayberry, R.F.D.," "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Green Acres," "Hee Haw" -- while they were still in the upper third of the Nielsen rankings.
Further study of this topic, including reading dozens of e-mails and letters from readers, has made me realize that while TV's emphasis on the 18-49 demographic does translate into a devaluing of viewers when they turn 50, it's not those who are entering their sixth decade who bear the brunt of the ageism. It's viewers who are 60, 65 and beyond.
According to the last census, there are more than 55 million Americans older than 55 and more than 35 million older than 65.
In correspondence from people who described themselves as "seniors," the recurring complaint was that there's less and less for them to watch, fewer shows with which they identify on what were once "mainstream" channels.
Relaxing evening
"My wife and I are seniors and retired on a fixed, very fixed, income," Al Weinberg of Farmingdale, N.Y., wrote. "We don't go running around every night even on weekends. We relax in front of the tube and watch some of the programs that have been around for awhile, such as 'Judging Amy,' 'ER' and the 'Law & amp; Order' programs. If most of our favorite shows go away, we will go to the library and take out video in either VHS or DVD, and will not watch shows for which the advertisers pay so much money."
Wouldn't it be nice if a letter like that would scare -- or shame -- CBS and the other networks into rethinking their youth fixation? But that's not the way the television industry works. Not anymore.
It's hard to believe that there was once a show called "The Golden Girls," in which the principal characters were three retirees and the mother of one of the women. Imagine a producer trying to pitch that concept now. By the time the network show-developers got through with it, it would look like "Good Morning, Miami."
The problem is not just that most shows now revolve around people who are in their 40s or younger -- often much younger. Few shows even include a token elder presence.
Take medical dramas, for instance. Once upon a time, they typically employed junior and senior leads. Young Dr. Kildare had fatherly Dr. Gillespie. Dr. Steven Kiley learned family practice at the right hand of silver-gray Marcus Welby, M.D. Even as recently as the late 1980s, "St. Elsewhere" had Norman Lloyd's fragile, white-haired Dr. Auschlander to ride herd over the young hotshots. Nowadays, Noah Wyle's "ER" character, Dr. Carter, counts as a grand old man. Wyle just turned 34.
Older actors
By my tabulations, the oldest actor with a major part in a prime-time series premiering this fall will be Donald Sutherland, who'll be 70 in July. He's cast as a Washington insider in ABC's "Commander-in-Chief," which stars Geena Davis as the vice president who moves up when the president dies in office. With "Judging Amy," which co-starred Tyne Daly, 59, not coming back in the fall, Davis, at 49, will be one of the oldest actresses in a major role on a major network.
The oldest regulars in current series include Jerry Stiller ("The King of Queens"), David McCallum ("NCIS"), Sam Waterston ("Law & amp; Order"), Martin Sheen ("The West Wing") and James Caan ("Las Vegas"). Stiller is 78. McCallum 71. Caan is 65. Sheen and Waterston soon will be 65. Except for Stiller, they all come across much younger.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Indeed, it could be said to be representative of the relative "youth" of today's seniors -- that "65 is the new 55" thing. But it's also a reminder of the medium's aversion to the less pleasant inevitabilities of aging, the ailments and decreasing mobility.
There's speculation that this situation will be remedied to some extent when the baby boomers swell the ranks of seniordom, making it foolhardy for the networks and advertisers to ignore them. But don't hold your breath. TV's ageism, undemocratic and socially indifferent though it is, is also another facet of its commitment to fantasy. Giving us an honest, representative portrait of ourselves just isn't its mission.

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