TV audiences are getting older. But that's not the complete picture.

You may know you’re old when after a morning of mountain biking, meeting for lunch with your financial adviser and then watching the sun set over a lake with your significant other while sitting (for some weird reason) in separate old claw-foot bathtubs that you dragged out on the lawn — you just want to relax in front of some good old-fashioned TV. That is if you believe the latest TV viewer median age data gives you the complete picture.

Steve Sternberg, a media analyst, just released some new data showing that TV’s audience — which should be no surprise to anyone — is getting older. ABC’s median viewership is now 51, one year older than last season. CBS is now 55, also a year older. NBC is up two years, to 49. Fox is still at the kid’s table at 44. Ten years ago  ABC was 43, CBS was 52, NBC was 45 and Fox was just 35. That means the same viewers haven’t changed their habits. They’re just putting more candles on their birthday cakes.

It’s not quite fair to point fingers at broadcast either. Cable is in the same boat (or is that a clawfoot bathtub?). In fact, Fox News is the oldest channel of all time at 65 — surprisingly older than the Hallmark Channel, Military Channel and the Golf Channel. CNN is 63, MSNBC 59 and CNBC (oddly enough) 52. What’s the youngest fully distributed channel? Oxygen. Then Bravo, VH1 Classic, Travel and TLC. Their median age is about 42.

So what’s happening here? Why are younger people not watching TV anymore? Are they all on the Internet? Do you know many people who don’t have cable, satellite or fiber optic TV in their homes? Of course not. I think the problem lies within how younger people consume media and the way we currently collect data.

Learning how to be less loyal

Not that long ago broadcast television was king. There were three major channels. And then Fox. I remember when Fox took over WFLD in Chicago. My father dismissed the station out of hand — thinking it wouldn’t be around long. After all, how could it compete with three big juggernauts. As far as I was concerned it was great — why wouldn’t I want another programming option. Especially one with cutting edge shows like The Tracy Ulman Show (the birthplace of The Simpsons) and In Living Color.

The introduction of Fox wasn’t merely an extra channel. It was the beginning of new way to consume media. We were being taught that we didn’t need to be loyal. That’s confusing to networks; television programming is designed around loyalty, airing certian shows after other popular shows to gain viewership. Television was quickly turning into dim sum. Younger viewers now consume media in tasty little bites by surfing around, bouncing from channel to channel, show to show. Older viewers are more inclined to tune into a station and leave it there. Want physical and anecdotal proof? Two words: Fox News.

In other words younger viewers are more splintered. Not only do we have 50 channels to surf, we have social networking sites, YouTube, blogs and streaming television options like Hulu (which has a cluelessly designed, extremely limited and underutilized advertising model) and Netflix (with absolutely no advertising model). The current ratings model isn’t only skewing older, it’s skewing older and because of a relatively unsophisticated interpretation and collection of data, dangerously ignoring younger viewers. There needs to be even more sophisticated methods of measuring data across multiple television channels and alternative media at the same time — and a way to compile all that data into one massive profile analysis.

Pulling back and looking at a more complete picture is vitally important. For example: yes — older people may be signing up for social media sites like Facebook — but they’re not using those tools to their full advantage or frequently enough (learn more at our free webinar, Tuesday, August 17th at 12pm CST, titled Reaching Boomers Via Social Media). TV is still the best way to reach consumers over 45, but the larger picture is that they’re not alone. Make no mistake. Younger viewers are still watching TV. They’re just consuming it differently.