TV STATISTICS: Older age on the small screen

Ageism is also evident on TV, cable and streaming services – all of which have extremely large audiences. Even before COVID-19 arrived in 2020 sending people away from movie theatres to their homes and ‘home entertainment centres’ with their 65+ inch screens, more people (particularly younger adults in their 20s and 30s) have been absorbing the majority of their entertainment and news either on their phones or in the comfort of their own homes from a TV, computer or streaming services. The ‘small’ screen consists of TV network and cable companies, such as HBO, AMC, Showtime, etc., along with the myriad of screening companies and services, which include, but are not limited to, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Hulu (not yet available in Canada), Disney+, Peacock, HBO Max, AMC+, and over 31 million YouTube channels (Omnicore, 2020). The possible offerings on these services are massive. For example, according to one source (Audrey Conklin from Fox Business), using data collected from RealGood (a streaming service search engine), as of June 2020, Netflix had 3781 movies and 1940 TV shows available to view, while Amazon Prime had 12,828 free movies and 2200 free TV programs.

The overwhelming (and constantly changing) number of programs available through these services make an analysis extremely challenging. Although the literature on representations of age and aging in television is sparce, television, like film, has a focus on youth, while producing little programming that features older adults in primary roles (Signorielli, 2004: 279). Current statistics on older age and gender in TV and on streaming services are also limited, but as in film, women (particularly older women), are underrepresented on television and on streaming services. Statistics from The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Filmshow that in the 2019-2020 season:

  • “Females comprised 44% of characters on broadcast programs, 45% of characters on cable programs, and 45% of characters on streaming programs,” but
  • “Overall, female characters were younger than males. The majority of female characters were in their 20s and 30s (56%), whereas the majority of male characters were in their 30s and 40s (59%)” (CSWTF, 2020).

This is the only data they provided for older age in their statistical analysis.

Historical perspectives:

Nancy Signorielli’s research on representation of older adults on TV in the 1960s-1990s:

Nancy Signorielli (2004) examined the representation of older men and women on primetime television from the 1960s though the 1990s, (acknowledging the lack of available literature on 1980s television). Signorielli’s review of the literature nevertheless suggested that older adults have been continuously under-represented on primetime TV for decades, and that like dominant cinema, television “celebrates youth and neglects the elderly,” producing little programming that feature adults in primary roles (Signorielli, 2004: 279). This is consistent with Vernon, et al. (1990) whose findings also exposed under-representation of older adults on television (with a representation of 3.3% of older adult characters on television during prime time, even though they made up 12.1% of the US population) (p. 57). Statistics from Signorielli’s 2004 research (citing Arnoff, 1974) are as follows:

  • In the late 1960s and early 1970s, only 5% of the TV characters were older adults (p. 281)
  • There was also a prominent gender bias as older females were outnumbered by older males three to one (Tedesco,1974, cited in Signorielli, 2004:281)

A second study, cited by Signorielli (Greenberg, Simmons, Hogan & Atkin, 1980), showed that:

  • Only 3% of the main characters in prime-time dramatic programs between 1975 and 1977 were adults 65 years of age or older, and also reflected a gender bias of approximately three to one.
  • And, comparing the age of characters in 1970s, 1980s and 1990s television, Signorelli and Bacue (1999) found no change in the percentage of older characters: only 3% of males and 2.6% of females were categorized as “elderly.” Note: Although Signorelli does not provide an exact age for this statistic, from statements made earlier in her paper, persons age 65 and older would seem to be classified as “elderly” (Signorelli, 2004).

Vernon, et al. (1990) provide additional statistics:

  • They confirm a gender bias in television programming, not only in numbers of males to females on television (a 2 to 1 ratio), but a gender bias in terms of positive and negative depictions of older age, with older men more likely to be portrayed positively with “desirable traits” and older women presented more negatively with “undesirable” traits” (p. 55-64).
  • However, Vernon emphasizes that when older men or women are featured in television roles, they are both presented in an ageist and stereotypical fashion (p. 64).
  • Another consistent finding, which finds parallels with the situation in dominant cinema, shows that during the 1970s women were generally portrayed as younger than their male counterpart, and not as intelligent (Signorielli, 2004: 282).

Bazzini, et al. (1997): Research on film:

  • A study on older women in film conducted by Bazzini, et al. (1997) mirror’s Bragger’s research on television with the Gray Panther’s “Media Watch.”
  • It concluded that: ageist stereotypes were pervasive in films from the 1940s through the 1980s.