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NBC's Troubles with "Harry" (Or, Why Don't Advertisers Like "Old" People?)

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NBC kicked off the 2012-13 broadcast upfront season with a move that may have alienated millions of people -- the cancellation of legal drama Harry's Law, this despite the fact that it often was the network's most watched entertainment series during its two-year run. The trouble with Harry's Law, as NBC noted, was that its audience was unmanageably older-skewing, even though it was much larger than that of many other television shows. That means most of its viewers were 55-plus -- or dead in the eyes of advertisers who continue to lust after the 18-34, 18-49 and, less passionately, 25-54 demographic groups.

Such industry ageism is nothing new. Indeed, it was an issue of near calamitous proportions for CBS back in the early 90s, when that network almost buckled under the weight of all the old folks who were enjoying so much of what it was offering before it went all procedural crime drama and smart-mouthed comedy. Shows such as Murder, She Wrote and Falcon Crest were enormously popular but unforgivably mature in their audience profiles. CBS doesn't skew as old today as it did back then; in fact, it manages to do just fine attracting large audiences of all ages -- and advertisers, as well.

In that context, it seems rather rash for NBC to go and kill one of the few shows on its network that drew a substantial audience even if that audience was "old," rather than to find a way to make it work. But Harry's Law, which appealed to millions of older people who enjoy watching television, was cut down in favor of a number of new series that NBC hopes will catch the eye of much younger viewers, many of whom choose not to watch television at all. They're too busy with anything and everything else, especially when it comes to entertainment. Also alienated by this cancellation are the millions of people who welcome challenging and thought-provoking drama. Harry's Law wasn't a perfect show, but it was the only scripted series on television that consistently tackled controversial contemporary issues. For example, and as if on cue, two days after word came down (via a tweet from 60-plus series lead Kathy Bates) that Harry's was toast, the show featured in what would turn out to be its penultimate episode a story about a gay man who could not give life-saving blood to his dying brother because of laws preventing gay men from donating blood without the written consent of the recipient, who in this case was unconscious on account of being near death and all.

Watching this show during its two seasons, even sporadically, I've heard numerous compelling and at times startling debates in many a lively courtroom sequence, on subjects ranging from human rights to animal rights to immigration concerns to the economic destruction of the American working class at the hands of the United States government, big banks and corporate giants. I believe a recent storyline that explored the potentially fatal dangers of high school football propelled that decidedly unpopular topic into the national conversation. I find it unbelievable that young people aren't interest in dynamic explorations of these and other issues.

This column continues over at MediaPost.