Television executives have almost
tired of analyzing the defection of young male viewers from broadcast television. Now, though, programming executives face a more pressing issue: finding programming that young viewers—both men and women—will tune in for.
One of cable's cheerleaders, MTV Networks research chief Betsy Frank says viewers born since the mid 1970s—she calls them "media actives"—are disenchanted with broadcast programs (heavy on drama this fall) and scheduling (late night is young viewers' prime time). They're accustomed to having multiple entertainment options: videogames, cable and the Internet as well as television. And now, she says, they are beginning to influence their older cohorts, creating what she calls "the perfect TV storm."
Hosting a discussion of TV programming trends in New York, she said, "The broadcasters may be looking to Nielsen to explain their declining numbers, but, this season, those expectations alone explain a lot." On the panel were MTV Networks executives, Daily Show
host Jon Stewart, Initiative Media research chief Stacey Lynn Koerner and author Neil Gabler.
Citing Nielsen data from November, Frank said the six broadcast networks saw declines from the previous two years among viewers 12-34, 18-49 and 25-54. In contrast, cable's audience was up in all three groups.
That may be true, but the ratings picture is not entirely rosy for cable either. While the broadcasters have lost young men this fall, ad-supported cable's numbers held steady. Cable did not catch the run-off from broadcast.
"They gravitate to content that appeals to them at the moment," said Koerner. "That doesn't mean, if there is nothing on broadcast, they will watch more cable."
Still, networks are trying to please fickle young viewers. That includes brand-new cable net XY.TV, which launched Monday offering reality-style programming for 12- to 34-year-olds. "Whoever said there are 500 channels and nothing to watch was probably a 20-year-old, not a 57-year-old woman," said XY.TV chief John Garabedian. So far, the channel has a carriage deal with RCN.
Reality is one of TV's few proven attractions with young viewers. "This is just how this generation views television," said MTV and VH1 programming chief Brian Graden. "Reality is just one more way to capture human emotion."
Indeed, programs like Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, TLC's Trading Spaces
and MTV's Newlyweds
some of cable's biggest hits this year, both overall and among younger viewers. MTV's "Sunday Night Stew" block—featuring reality shows Punk'd, Wild Boyz
and Viva La Bam
—scores well with young men. "An odd, lucky coincidence," said Graden, "at a time when broadcasters are losing them."
This fall, broadcasters held back on reality programming in favor of scripted fare, and ratings with younger viewers suffered. In November, the six broadcast nets delivered 18% fewer 12- to 34-year-olds than two years before, while cable's marks climbed 10%, according to Frank.
An upcoming reality onslaught could change that. Early next year, Survivor, American Idol
and The Bachelorette
will return with new installments, and NBC will debut The Apprentice
and Average Joe: Hawaii.
"As soon as broadcast brings back reality, which they closeted during last spring's upfront, we'll see the return of many of those young viewers," said Frank.
With the upfront approaching in late spring, though, that could be a mixed blessing. Last February, when the broadcast networks were heavy on reality, "it absolutely wreaked havoc with the broadcast schedules," said Koerner.
Where there was reality, broadcast networks got younger, while other programs skewed older. Advertisers looking for older viewers, she pointed out, were left with spots on young-skewing programs. "It left a lot of advertisers scrambling and angry" and prompted broadcasters to hype scripted shows over reality in their upfront presentations last spring.
Few advertisers took the bait, though, Koerner said. "I wouldn't say that any of them believed we wouldn't see reality back on the schedule this year."
Plenty of new reality is coming to cable, too. On FX's Todd TV, which debuts next month, viewers will get to control star Todd Santos's life, deciding whether he should, say, quit his job. In February, ESPN kicks off its search for a new SportsCenter host with reality show Dream Job.
Even niche nets are ramping up reality. Outdoor Life Network's upcoming Cowboys 101
will follow the rodeo team of Sul Ross State University, Alpine, Texas, and, on Game Show Network, former Joe Millionaire
star Evan Marriott is slated to host new spoof dating show Fake-A-Date.