Nielsen Addresses TV Viewership Declines

NEW YORK Nielsen Media Research issued a white paper yesterday that addresses the steep decline in TV viewing by men 18-34, reaffirms the accuracy of its audience data and attributes 40 percent of the viewer declines to “methodological improvements” made in its audience sample.

But in the 43-page report, Nielsen seemed to be standing by its overall contention in the past month, since debate surrounding the viewer decline first became public, that for the most part, viewing patterns have just changed.

“We are committed to continue pursuing a fuller understanding of the underlying reasons for the trends we are seeing in the data,” the report stated. “We will continue to work closely with our clients who are sharing analytical suggestions and insights, and we, in turn, will share what we learn with the industry over the coming weeks.” Nielsen is a unit of VNU, owner of Adweek Magazines.

That conclusion is not going to make the broadcast networks happy. Yesterday afternoon, just prior to the issuance of the white paper, Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group, said, “If you look at those [viewer] numbers, there is clearly something amiss. We’ve hired an outside firm to assist Giles Lundberg [Fox executive vp of research and marketing], and we are more interested in our own findings than Nielsen’s white paper.”

Lundberg added that he is “becoming more sure” that there is a Nielsen problem.

Jeff Zucker, NBC entertainment president, said, “Clearly, there is an issue with Nielsen and the sample. It can’t be that [overall] football ratings are up 2 percent, yet men 18-34 ratings are down 22 percent.”

Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC, said, “Clearly, we never see these types of [viewer] declines except when it is a sampling problem.”

But Nielsen said young adult representation in its sample this year is closer to the universe estimate than it was last year, and “given their lower viewing levels,” this could account for a 20 percent decline in the numbers.

Nielsen also said that improved Hispanic representation could result in a 2 percent decline, while weighting the sample to improve representation on a day-to-day basis can account for 17 percent of the total decline.

Finally, Nielsen said it could not determine what impact video game and DVD usage by young men is having on TV viewing habits.

In effect, Nielsen has not resolved much with its white paper, and the debate is expected to rage on, until a more definitive explanation can be given to the question of where the missing male TV viewers have gone.