Old at Heart

Advertisers love teens and young adults for a very simple reason: They generally spend more money than members of other demographic groups. That's why every media manager worth his pension claims that attracting this audience is a top priority -- and why they sometimes go to embarrassing extremes to do so. Take a recent e-mail attributed to a producer with CNN Headline News, who had compiled a slang dictionary intended to help his writers boost the youth appeal of graphics that crawl along the screen's bottom. According to a November 14 Associated Press piece, the producer wrote, "Please use this guide to help all you homeys and honeys add a new flava to your tickers and dekkos."

That guy's head is fat! And I don't mean phat!

Granted, clumsy uses of modern lingo can sometimes pay dividends. As delivered by actress Brittany Murphy in the film 8 Mile -- a carefully assembled, emotionally suspect apologia for Eminem -- the line "I hear you're a dope rapper" seems about as authentic as Justin Timberlake's approximation of ghetto cool. But it didn't prevent the flick from sucking up over $50 million in its first week.

For the most part, though, the only trendsetters fooled by techniques like these are the ones who buy their skate-punk clothes at Sears -- and fewer still pay much attention to traditional information programming. In the documentary Bowling for Columbine, director/star Michael Moore argues that U.S. high schoolers are increasingly apt to settle disagreements with guns partly because they're bombarded with violent imagery on television news shows. Yet the plain truth is that the vast majority of such students, and plenty of others south of thirty, would rather French kiss Jerry Lewis than watch the ten o'clock news -- and they have just as little interest in equivalent radio broadcasts or daily newspapers.

Why? Major media operations in Denver unintentionally offer a multitude of explanations. Based on viewing and reading over the past two weeks, the largest local electronic and print outfits seldom address topics of probable interest to the wrinkle-free set, and when they do, they often stumble into condescension.

Television newscasts aired on November 11 (a date chosen at random) provide some cases in point. Channel 2's 9 p.m. program hardly contradicted filmmaker Moore's observation about the media's fondness for gore. Of its first fourteen items, only number eight, which dealt with job losses at Denver International Airport, was entirely free of blood, death, mayhem or some combination thereof. As such, young people earned airtime only if they died tragically -- like two boys killed on an ATV and a snowboarder who perished on Colorado's slopes -- or did something really moronic. Following a report about a teenager burned while mimicking a stunt from Jackass: The Movie, anchor Ernie Bjorkman muttered "Geez," so apparently dumbfounded was he by the stupidity of the younger generation.

The youth quotient was much the same on other Denver newscasts. During its 5 p.m. show, Channel 9 gave prominent play to Veteran's Day festivities -- a valid editorial decision. But of the seventeen reports aired (excluding weather and sports segments), only one, about the "white gold" falling on ski areas, featured young adults. On Channel 7 at 6 p.m., just one person under thirty appeared -- a teenager who said nice things about veterans being celebrated at Standley Lake High School. As for Channel 4's 10 p.m. effort, it contained November 11's best broadcast report, a Rick Salinger investigation about gun shows, but no young folks at all, unless a certain percentage of skiers seen in a long shot were counted.

That left Channel 31 as the only station on this particular evening to acknowledge the existence of individuals young enough to have never seen Johnny Carson live on The Tonight Show. Like the other stations, its 9 p.m. newscast covered a recent rash of pet mutilations, but it was the only one to include a sound bite from a neighborhood teen disgusted by the crimes. (The absence of youngsters from other channels' reports implied that disturbed kids were the most likely suspects.) Also on tap was a "Fame or Shame" sequence, in which "troubleshooter" Tom Martino tested teeth-whitening strips on a gaggle of twenty-something cigar smokers, and clips of youthful contestants vying for stardom in a "Colorado Idol" talent competition. These last two segments deserve credit for concentrating on folks for whom middle age represents the future, not the present or the past. Too bad they were also innocuous and fluffy in the extreme.

If anything, local news/talk radio addressed youth-oriented topics even less frequently than did area TV news. After two weeks of listening to weekday morning and afternoon drive offerings on a variety of signals, I stumbled upon just one instance of a host devoting significant airtime to a youthful topic: KHOW's Scott Redmond spoke for portions of several days about attending a No Doubt concert that took place November 6 at the Denver Coliseum. However, Redmond's focus wasn't on the music, but upon a few profanities spewed from the stage, and whether such words were inappropriate at a performance attended by many children.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts