Aging stars still face hurdles on ad-supported networks

Review: 'Feud' is a smashing success
Review: 'Feud' is a smashing success

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    Review: 'Feud' is a smashing success

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Review: 'Feud' is a smashing success 02:16

(CNN)The 1996 movie "First Wives Club" refers to roles available to women as "babe, district attorney and 'Driving Miss Daisy.'" A similar line occurs in FX's new drama "Feud: Bette and Joan," in which aging star Joan Crawford describes an actress' career stages as "ingénue, mother and gorgon."

Still, the mere existence of that series, devoted to Crawford and Bette Davis' tumultuous relationship while making "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," demonstrates how the pendulum has modestly shifted. It also reinforces that the increase in major parts for older performers tend to remain concentrated in pay venues, where every subscriber's money is the same regardless of age.
The mini-surge in programs showcasing seniors has been centered on services like Netflix, which this week launches the third season of "Grace and Frankie," starring septuagenarians Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin; and Amazon, whose bittersweet comedy "Transparent" has earned multiple awards for its star, 72-year-old Jeffrey Tambor.
Jeffrey Tambor stars in 'Transparent'
The early results for "Feud," meanwhile, underscore the challenge such programs face on networks that generate revenue from advertising. While the Hollywood-themed tale performed reasonably well in terms of total audience, attracting 3.8 million viewers for its premiere, Nielsen data shows the median viewer age was 57, a dozen years older than the network's average with original dramas.
    While that might have something to do with the subject matter and 1960s setting, such data reinforce the sense that young adults who provide the basis for negotiating most ad sales are more reluctant to watch shows featuring older leads. Similarly, NBC's new comedy "Trial & Error," featuring John Lithgow as an eccentric professor accused of murder, got off to a tepid start last week, despite favorable reviews and a lead-in from the "This Is Us" season finale.
    John Lithgow in 'Trial & Error'
    The climate facing older performers in general, and actresses in particular, has been a long point of discussion. At an FX press event in January, Lange said the situation is somewhat improved but largely unchanged.
    "I think that a big part of the show is what Hollywood does to women, as they age, which is just a microcosm of what happens to women generally as they age, whether you want to say they become invisible or undesirable or unattractive," she said, adding, "What happens when that beauty is no longer considered viable because it's equated with youth?"
    Notably, "Grace and Frankie" depicts its leads as vibrant and sexual. This season, one of the subplots involves them trying to market a sexual aid for older women.
    In addition, there's a loving relationship between their former husbands, played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, who, in the program's set-up, left their wives for each other.
    Again, the market for pay-to-view projects featuring older stars has found a significant toehold, basically as counter-programming in a fragmented media marketplace. April, for example, will see the release of the comedy "Going in Style," featuring Michael Caine, Alan Arkin and Morgan Freeman, who is the youngest of the three at age 79. It joins a genre punctuated by hits like "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."
    Hurdles continue to exist, however, in ad-supported venues, where skewing to an older audience can depress what networks bring in. That's true even for stars like Fonda and Tomlin, whose characters talk frequently about ageism within the show, such as an early episode when a bank rejects their loan request.
    Asked what's different from her past dealings, Fonda's Grace mutters, "The last time I wasn't 73."
    "Grace and Frankie" begins its third season March 24 on Netflix. "Feud" airs Sundays on FX.