Betty White’s Comeback and TV’s Ageism

5 minute read
James Poniewozik

Betty White has lived for 88 years, which, to put it graphically, equals the number of keys on a piano. This has made her recent TV hot streak — starring in a Super Bowl ad, hosting Saturday Night Live , appearing at the MTV Movie Awards and now co-starring in a new sitcom, Hot in Cleveland — unusual news in a medium that plays most of its tunes on the left half of that demographic keyboard.

White’s moment — like Susan Boyle’s last year — is one of those feel-good stories whose subtext is the feel-bad reality that celebrity doesn’t work this way. She’s “Hollywood’s New It Girl!” cried the headlines. She’s “White Hot!” Everybody loves Betty White; she’s had whip-crack timing and a commanding comic presence for seven decades in the biz. That’s inspiring for the rest of us, who either are old or (if we’re lucky) will be. But does it mean that TV is finally letting go of its youth obsession?

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Not really. And the rationale has to do less with TV’s disdain for older actresses — enough of a problem itself — than with its built-in incentives to disdain older viewers.

Look at how White ended up hosting SNL : a massive campaign on young-skewing Facebook, launched by a 29-year-old fan. Sure, older people use Facebook too, and White’s cross-generational appeal is an asset. But it’s fair to say that a draft-Betty campaign on an AARP bulletin board would not have had the same impact.

The reasons are simple. Advertising still matters in TV — even on cable, excepting pay channels like HBO. You don’t make money in ad-sponsored TV by getting the most viewers. You make money by getting those viewers whom advertisers will pay the most to reach.

Those numbers are only tangentially related to overall ratings, because advertisers still care most about young people (defined mainly as those from 18 to 49, tops). They care on grounds that range from pseudo science (the poorly substantiated but widely held belief that older people are less likely to try new brands) to vanity (advertising is still largely a coolness-driven business) to statistics (younger people watch less TV, which perversely means sponsors pay more to reach them during the shows they do watch). But they care.

White’s sitcom The Golden Girls debuted in 1985. Two years later, Nielsen boxes began providing more detailed information to networks and advertisers on what age groups were watching which shows. The shift within a few years was dramatic: goodbye, Bea Arthur; hello, Jennifer Aniston.

Golden Girls lives on in reruns. But take a look at the networks’ schedules for this fall — lots of relationship sitcoms about generically pretty 20- and 30-somethings — and it’s clear that a sitcom about a quartet of feisty, lusty senior ladies would have as much chance as a prime-time remake of The Howdy Doody Show .

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Instead, we have Hot in Cleveland , in which three 40-ish women from L.A. (played by Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick) are flight-delayed in Ohio and decide to stay when they discover that in the heartland, they’re considered sexy. White plays their house’s caretaker. The joke is that you, the viewer, get to feel superior to a shallow, ageist standard that Hollywood perpetuates to cater to you, the viewer. (The meta-joke: Cleveland airs not on a major network but on TV Land, a nostalgia channel.) It’s, um, funny because it’s true?

I wish I could say Cleveland were funny, but while White is the best thing in the show, it’s mainly a museum of retread gags that plays like an ’80s sitcom in the worst way. (Its premise was funnier when it was a two-minute scene on 30 Rock .) Still, the show says a lot about the upper limits of age diversity on TV now, especially among women.

Today, golden girls have been replaced by cougars — on the Real Housewives series, Cougar Town and so on — women who are seen as exotic and amusing because they’re sexual a few years past 40. Beyond that? Forget it. Ironically, the median age of the broadcast networks’ audience hit 50 a couple of years ago, meaning their typical viewer is literally too old for them.

Of course, their attitude will change if they get financial incentive. Someday, for instance, ad-tracking technology might provide better data on how well older consumers (and their bigger wallets) actually respond to commercials.

Until then, older viewers’ best hope may be to watch less TV and thus become as elusive and sought-after as the youngsters who have deserted the tube for the Internet and video games. Betty White’s comeback is well deserved and a nice story. But the real change will come when networks start making shows not about an 88-year-old lady in Cleveland but for an 88-year-old lady in Cleveland. If she wants that to happen, she might want to get a Wii.

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