Italy: Good country for old men

Europe's oldest population presents challenges for media

The average age in Italy has been inching upward every year for a generation, and indications are that the trend will continue for decades. But you'd hardly know it watching Italian television or stepping into Italian cinemas.

According to United Nations estimates for 2007, the average Italian is 42.5 years old — the oldest average population in Europe.

Italians have more gray on top than the Germans (where the average age is 40.9 years), the Spanish (40.3), the Brits (39.6) or the French (39.1). Worldwide, only the average Japanese (43.5) is older, while the average American (36.6) is a relative whippersnapper.

The trend has been building steam on the boot-shaped peninsula for more than a quarter century. The last time Italy's average age didn't rise from one year to the next was 1981, when it held steady at 37.1 years. And with tight immigration standards, a low birthrate and improving life expectancy, some predictions say the average Italian will be nearly 50 years old by 2050.

What are television and film producers doing about the trend? So far, almost nothing.

"It's true that the demographics are shifting, but at this point it's had little impact on the makeup of people who go to the cinema," said Paolo Protti, president of national cinema retailers association ANEC. "The average moviegoer is still very young."

Protti said that, though the number of young people in Italy is decreasing, the impact of that trend has been muted because they go to the cinema more often than in the past, based in part on their having more discretionary income and more free time — particularly during the key summer months.

Italy enjoyed record cinema attendance last year — more than 100 million cinema tickets were sold for the first time since 1986 — in large part because the traditionally slow summer months of June and July were solid. Part of the reason for that, according to the polling firm Opinioni, is that workers have less vacation time, leaving their children in the cities while they're not in school.

"A generation ago, those children would be at the beach for most of the summer," Opinioni co-director Maria Rossi said. "Now they stay at home for a lot of that time. They have to find something to do with their time, and it should be no surprise that a lot of them end up in the cinema."

A lot of them watch television as well. Publitalia, the country's largest media-buying company, said its studies show that the two youngest age groups — those under 12 and the 13-19 demo — remain the most attractive to ad buyers, even as their numbers slowly contract. That's because they remain the most impressionable and, aside from the over-60 group, the reliable demographic in terms of what they watch.

"As long as advertisers continue to seek out that age group, television content producers will continue to make programs for them," said Paolo Sensi, a Publitalia consultant.

To be sure, some concessions are being made to a gradually aging demographic. State broadcaster RAI said in early January that it would start to air what it called "nostalgia programming" — reruns of programs popular in the 1960s, '70s and '80s — on the weekend in an attempt to tap into the growing pool of viewers who came of age during those periods.

Ditto for the cinema, where films set a generation in the past are beginning to appear more often. Last year, Daniele Luchetti's "Mio Fratello e Figlio Unico" (My Brother Is an Only Child), for example, or "Il Negro e l'Amaro" (The Sweet and the Bitter) from Andrea Porporati, were surprise art house successes set in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively.

But marketing films and television programming to an aging population will become more difficult as time goes by, experts say.

"Remember that people retiring today have grown up with television and movies their whole lives," said Giuseppe Mazzei, a communications expert with Rome's Sapienza University and a frequent commentator on media issues. "That wasn't true for someone who was 70 or 75 two decades ago. The oldest viewers today are much more savvy than the same age group was in the past."

Mazzei predicts that the satellite and cable broadcasters may start developing new channels specifically aimed at older viewers and that film producers might follow suit.

"Part of the challenge will be to come up with stories that have themes that speak to that demographic, whether that's because of nostalgia, actors their age, or subject matter," Mazzei said. "But something more subtle will be the challenge of telling stories that treat older people with more dignity. In a lot of old films, the old colorful guy was often the butt of the joke. I think we'll see less of that in the future."