Where the Boys Are
Cable's 18-34 men are sticking around
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/2/2003 7:00:00 PM
While broadcast networks have seen their young-male viewership numbers tumble this fall, cable is keeping its guys satisfied.
The Big Four networks and The WB, UPN and Pax are apoplectic over ratings declines for the hard-to-reach 18-34 demo that advertisers covet. So far this season, prime time broadcast Nielsen ratings for young men are off about 10%.
Anxious broadcasters can't believe the data, but Nielsen stands by its findings. "Young male viewers," the research firm said in a memo to broadcast clients last week, "are, in fact, watching less prime time television this year than last."
Cable networks can't feel broadcasters' pain, not that they care. Among men 18-34, the seven broadcast networks slipped 12% to a 13 rating in prime time. But cable's delivery to the demo in prime, while not up, is flat compared with a year ago, at a 12.2.
That's modestly good news for cable, but the results could be better. That's because cable networks are not gaining defectors from broadcast.
"We're not seeing the traditional shift from broadcast to cable at this particular time," said Turner Broadcasting System's chief research officer, Jack Wakshlag, "but we are seeing some [cable] networks showing gains."
Of cable networks, ESPN, not surprisingly, is the biggest winner. In October, the sports net's delivery to men 18-34 climbed 23% to 480,000 households. ESPN2 was also up slightly. Discovery Channel, FX and Cartoon Network as well showed impressive gains.
Says MTV Networks Chairman Tom Freston, "We're not having any problems. The networks that actually aim for that demo are getting them."
His MTV, Spike TV and Comedy Central are among cable's top draws with young men, but their demo ratings were flat in year-to-year comparisons.
The broadcast declines, reported earlier in BROADCASTING & CABLE, have researchers scratching their heads. They've asked Nielsen to dig deeper and analyze the young men in the sample to see which are accounting for the declines. The additional information is expected early this week.
In its memo last week, though, Nielsen said young men who were in the sample in August and September in 2002 and 2003 watched 11% less prime time broadcast television this year, according to the memo. And new men in the pool watched 9% less prime TV than the men they replaced did last year, Nielsen said.
The memo also noted that young men are playing more videogames in prime time, and Nielsen is trying to determine the impact of DVD and the Internet.
CBS research chief David Poltrack considers the memo premature. "The hypotheses being presented were just that. They have not been proven. Nielsen can't definitively say this is not a result of something going on in the sample."
In the fourth quarter, Nielsen initiated new weighting for younger viewers to reflect population shifts. But researchers do not blame the weighting. The drops "occurred going back to second and third quarter in some [dayparts]," noted Lyle Schwartz, managing partner of research for Mediaedge.cia.
The losses could be temporary, research executives point out. Viewing levels among certain demographics often ebb and flow. A few years ago, for example, kids' viewing dropped sharply but eventually recovered. "Within a few months," said Turner's Wakshlag, "the numbers usually return to normal."
What is clear is that young men are fickle viewers. Other than sports, little programming is aimed squarely at them. Noted Horizon Media research chief Brad Adgate, "There is very little like South Park, WWE wrestling and The Real World for them to watch."
The ratings, however, indicate that there were more young men watching broadcast last fall. In a research note, Magna Global research head Steve Sternberg compiled a short list of last year's male-appealing shows: UPN had Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight Zone and Haunted; Fox had Fastlane, John Doe, and fresh episodes of Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer and That '70s Show earlier in the season.
That's not the case this year. In fact, some of ABC's new shows—notably, Karen Sisco and Hope & Faith—are heavy on female appeal. Asked Sternberg, rhetorically, "Hmmm, why is anyone surprised that young men are watching less?"
One notable exception this year was Fox's often electrifying baseball playoffs, which scored well with young men.
CBS's Poltrack disagrees that the programming mix is the culprit. The losses, he notes, trace back to August, and young men have dropped from late-night shows and Sunday-afternoon NFL football, typically strong attractions. "None of that can be related to dissatisfaction with any new network programs."
Don't expect broadcast nets to react by loading up on shows for young men. Said Horizon Media's Adgate, "What that group likes to watch may not necessarily be mainstream. It can push the envelope and risks advertiser backlash."
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