The Case of the Missing Young Male TV Viewers

An average of 1.5 million fewer 18-24-year-old males are watching TV this season, dragging down prime-time ratings, according to Nielsen Media Research data. The dramatic drop has bewildered buyers and sellers.

With the falloff in young males watching broadcast and cable primetime TV since Sept. 22—along with a less significant decline in female viewers and all adults 18-34—all the broadcast networks except for Fox are underdelivering on 18-34 and 18-49 ratings guarantees.

The networks and media agencies have questioned whether the surprising numbers are a result of a new weighted-sampling system that Nielsen introduced this season. Anne Elliot, communications vp, said Nielsen (owned by Adweek parent VNU) investigated and concluded that its system could not be responsible for such large year-to-year discrepancies. Nielsen also hired an outside firm to determine whether data-processing errors were responsible, Elliot said, and that possibility was ruled out.

At least one network sales exec was unconvinced. “Nielsen will never admit it is doing anything wrong,” the exec said. “We will not be able to prove there is anything wrong with their system, because they won’t let anyone see their data.”

Ratings for the 18-34 demo at younger-skewing networks the WB and UPN are down by 16 and 20 percent respectively. CBS is down by 19 percent (one fewer National Football League game ran into Sunday primetime than last year, which partially explains the decline), NBC by 13 percent and ABC by 6 percent. Among the younger demos who are watching TV, a majority are tuning into the post-season Major League Baseball telecasts on Fox, which has seen a 21 percent uptick in 18-34-year-olds.

The decrease “is a true phenomenon,” said Dave Poltrack, CBS’ evp of research, noting that the drop is the biggest in the young male demo since 1996. “There are no commensurate declines of this size in any other demo, and overall viewing is actually up. And over the past 10 years, TV viewing in the demo has not fluctuated by more than 1 or 2 percent year to year. This is certainly an extraordinary decline.”

Agreed Lyle Schwartz, director of media research for Mediaedge:cia: “This has been a pretty dramatic shift in viewing patterns, and it is going to significantly reshape the advertising marketplace if it’s not corrected soon.”

Brad Adgate, svp of research at Horizon Media, said since Nielsen turns over about 250 homes a month in its sample, the new participants “may just be watching less TV.” But Elliot said Nielsen has found that the viewers tuning out are from the same households in the sample last year.

Poltrack said one explanation may be “sample fatigue,” meaning young people in a Nielsen household for close to the two-year run become careless about recording their viewing patterns.

Steve Sternberg, director of audience analysis at Magna Global USA, said it may simply be that most of the shows that have premiered so far are older-skewing.

Fox may provide some insight when it starts airing its regular lineup later this month. Says one network source: “If 24 gets significantly less 18-34 viewers, and young-skewing Fox sitcoms like That ’70s Show and its heavily young-male-skewing Sunday night lineup does poorly in the demo, then we will know something is wrong with the Nielsen sample. Fox will be an interesting barometer.”