For people of a certain age, there’s a set morning ritual. The newspaper arrives, pages are rustled (or clicked) and there you are: faced with a stark reminder of your own mortality, the obituaries.
In my house, it was my father who would make a beeline for the death notices even before scanning the sports scores. I would always ask him, “Why start your day with such depressing news?” He was always ready with a stock answer: “I want to see if I have to go to work today.”
“The older you get, the more you head to the obits first,” iconic television producer Norman Lear told an audience at the Austin Film Festival last fall. The spry and sharp 93-year-old was there to talk about one of his latest projects, a new TV show about older adults in a retirement community. “We open our morning newspapers and one of the expressions that comes out of our mouths is ‘Guess who died?’” But the man behind such groundbreaking 1970s sitcoms as All In the Family, The Jeffersons and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman — which deftly mined issues of race, gender and politics for humor and changed our culture — is bumping into a problem getting his planned show seen: Ageism.
It’s ironic, because ageism is the reason Lear wound up writing the series in the first place.
Lear told the Austin crowd that as he aged, he began to notice something that disturbed him: relatively few older people on television.
“As I got upwards in my 80s and into my 90s, the networks behaved like one Betty White covered a whole demographic,” he said. “I love Betty White, but she is not the entire demographic. They are in retirement villages across the country.”
“I heard from everybody. They laughed, thought it was funny, but didn't have a problem saying, ‘It's just not our demographic.’”
— Norman Lear
After seeing footage of women at a Palm Springs retirement village, a light bulb went off for Lear: This could be the setting for a television show about older people. He banged out a script for a pilot and called it Guess Who Died? That was five years ago. Lear’s been trying to get it produced ever since.
A Live Reading
At the Austin Film Festival, a mixed-age audience was treated to a live reading of the pilot, including this scene:
(In the Rainbow Village Clubhouse, Gertrude is reading the Pawtucket News her son, Arnold, had sent her from Rhode Island. Her cell phone rings. It’s Arnold, in a shirt and tie, at his office.)
Arnold: Hello, mother, did you get it yet? I mailed it four days ago.
Gertrude: I got it, I got it.
Arnold: Did you read the article?
Gertrude: Of course I read the article. Do you think there could be an article in the paper with my son in it and I wouldn’t read it? Please!
Arnold: Then you saw it. I’m the Pawtucket Powerhouse.
Gertrude: Of course, sweetheart. I don’t want you to be upset.
Arnold (exploding): Mother, I’m one of the top 50 most successful men in America! Why should I be upset?
Gertrude: That you were so far down on the list.
(Deflated, Arnold drops down into a chair. The door to his office opens and a young associate appears.)
Associate: They’re ready for you now, Governor.
The audience laughed. But not so funny to Lear is the uphill battle he has faced to find a buyer for the show.
An Obsession with Youth
If you thought the combination of Lear’s pedigree and America’s aging population (with the oldest of the boomers turning 70 this month) would make selling a show about a retirement village a slam dunk, you don’t understand television’s longtime obsession with the 18- to 34-year-old demographic.
“There are so many doors to knock on these days,” Lear told me, referring to all the streaming video services as well as broadcast and cable networks. “I heard from everybody. They laughed, thought it was funny, but didn’t have a problem saying, ‘It’s just not our demographic,’” he said.
His view: “People will laugh at whatever is funny, whether it’s older people being funny or younger people doing funny.”
But funny isn’t enough.
“Norman Lear has been a hero to many of us who’ve been in the ad business for the past three decades. He ushered in the Golden Age of television,” says David Verklin, the former CEO of Aegis Media Americas, one of the largest buyers of advertising time and space in the United States. Verklin, who helped the drug company Pfizer (maker of Viagra) decide how to spend its $1.9 billion TV advertising budget, understands the older market. “Pfizer would be a perfect sponsor for Guess Who Died? since all they do is medicine,” he says.
But that’s not enough either.
“The kind of show Norman is creating would attract an audience, mainly of the 55-plus, maybe 45-plus, and as interesting as that is, there’s a lot of programming that does that and is much cheaper than a scripted comedy,” notes Verklin.
Another hurdle: something called audience projection. That’s the reason 14-year-olds like to project themselves as older than they are and buy Seventeen magazine and some 55-year-olds project younger and buy Esquire or GQ.
“No one wants to see themselves in an old person’s home,” Verklin says.
And so it is that even in this age of cable cord-cutting and with the youngest adults saddled with college debt, advertisers are still chasing 18- to 34-year-olds with ferocity while shunning people 55 and older, despite their expendable income.
Verklin offered this unsolicited advice to Lear: Make a pilot and call the CEO of Pfizer to enlist his support.
In the meantime, CBS News Sunday Morning has taped a segment on Lear’s efforts to find a home for Guess Who Died?; it’s scheduled to run on Jan. 10.
Lear’s also working on another show for a streaming service; promoting the paperback of his memoir Even THIS I Get to Experience; railing against Donald Trump; staying active with the progressive organization he founded, People for the American Way, which is launching an initiative aimed at combatting “hate speech and anti-Muslim rhetoric” and is being profiled in a documentary that kicks off this month’s Sundance Film Festival (to be shown as part of the American Masters series on PBS ).
Lear isn’t giving up on Guess Who Died?, though. He is in ongoing conversations with programming executives about the show.
“I think it will happen,” he says. But Lear sounds slightly exasperated, telling me: “This project is important to me because there is no representation of my generation or your father’s generation in the thousand-plus TV shows on the air. We’re the fastest growing demographic with the most expendable income and no representation. It’s ridiculous.”