Call it the case of the missing young men. Some 750,000 men between the ages of 18 and 34 suddenly stopped watching TV this season, at least according to the Nielsen ratings.
For the first three weeks of the season, the level of men 18-34 using television is down 8% in prime time. Viewing levels in the demo are down in other dayparts as well and across the broadcast networks. That's with one exception: baseball-heavy Fox, which is up 3% in the demo in prime time but doesn't come close to accounting for the sharp overall decline.
On basic cable, TV usage levels for men 18-34 in prime time are up 2%, but that represents slower year-to-year growth than in previous years and also doesn't help explain the overall decline, ratings watchers say.
Network researchers say the falloff was sharp and sudden, occurring first in August and continuing into the new season.
One research executive termed the sudden 8% drop "unprecedented," noting that typical year-to-year fluctuations in TV usage by most demos tend to be no more than a couple of percentage points.
Nielsen confirmed that TV usage among the whole adults 18-34 demo was at an all-time low.
The disappearing viewers are potentially more disruptive for UPN and The WB on a network-wide basis but also for sports programming, where the 18-34 falloff has occurred in NFL telecasts, for example.
UPN shows the sharpest decline, 32%, in rating among men 18-34 for the first three weeks of the season. That's a problem because that network is more skewed toward young men than The WB is.
Fox, with huge success this year with baseball playoffs, hasn't been affected yet, although it could be once its core prime time schedule kicks in after the World Series. But the network declined to comment at this point.
Advertisers aren't thrilled. "We're not happy about it, but we really don't have answers yet," said one agency executive. "We're having an ongoing dialog with all the networks about it."
The networks in turn are having an ongoing dialog with Nielsen. The ratings service's preliminary conclusion, however, is that the falloff is real and not the result of processing errors or other flaws in the ratings system.
One early suspicion was that Nielsen's decision to weight the ratings this season for the first time and the new methodology for doing so may have been the culprit. But both sides say that weighting is not a key factor and accounts for just 1% of the missing viewers at most. In fact, Nielsen says there is some indication that the falloff would have been even greater without the weighting.
David Poltrack, executive vice president, research and planning, CBS, doesn't think it's a real decline: "In a short period of time where all of sudden you see a decline of 8% in just one demographic category, the probability that that is a real phenomenon is virtually zero."
One issue that Nielsen is still investigating is whether some significant portion of the 18-34 sample segment has simply grown tired of taking the time to log in and out properly from the Nielsen People Meter when watching TV. There is some circumstantial evidence suggesting that that could be part of the problem: Among men 18-34 who have been in the ratings panel longer (two years), TV usage levels are down 12% over all in prime time. A source notes that "18-34s are notorious non-cooperators."
But until it can prove otherwise, Nielsen is sticking by the conclusion that men 18-34 have found better things to do with their time. Among them: play videogames.
A Nielsen spokeswoman says the data shows a 20% year-to-year increase in the amount of videogame playing by men 18-34. She also said that, within the demo, the younger segment (18-24) is growing faster than the older portion (25-34). Questions remain about how their use of media differs, she said. Nielsen is also trying determine whether younger men are using the Internet more and TV less.