Nielsen: We Just Got Better

Why are the broadcast networks losing young male viewers? Simple, says Nielsen. It's doing a better job measuring TV audiences. According to a white paper issued by the ratings company last week, at least 40% of the decline is attributable to "the net effects of a number of methodological improvements" to its national-people-meter service over the past year.

Nielsen says the rest of the TV-usage shortfall among young men is real, attributable to other interests, such as videogames or DVDs. The ratings service also suggests (without stating outright) that perhaps a lack of compelling new programming on the fall schedules has suppressed the demo's viewing appetite.

The paper also says that the fall-off is consistent with declining viewing patterns for the demo over the past dozen years.

Alan Wurtzel, president, NBC research and new media development, said the paper confirms what NBC has been saying, that methodology is a key to the declines. "I'm a little disappointed that it took them three months to respond, but I'm glad they agree."

But Wurtzel also said that Nielsen still hasn't adequately explained why a majority of prime time programs "across all genres" have lost 30%-50% of their young male audience. Or how, for example, NFL football can be up slightly in household rating this season but down 15% among men 18-34. "To suggest that television has become irrelevant to young men is just plain wrong," he said.

According to the Nielsen paper, pay-cable services like HBO and broadcasters (in that order) have experienced the biggest declines in usage among men 18-34 this season. Season-to-date through Nov. 16, total-day viewership by men 18-34 across all TV media is down 6% from a year ago. For pay-cable services, the drop is 14%; for broadcast networks, 11%.

In prime time, the declines are sharper: 8% across the TV universe, 24% for pay cable and 12% for the broadcast nets.

The story is better for ad-supported cable because its viewership in the demo is basically flat. According to prime time Nielsen data this fall, in delivery to men 18-34, all but one of the top 10 cable networks posted increases over a year ago. Only USA Network was down.

"This is really a broadcast issue right now," says MTV Networks head of research Betsy Frank. She agrees with the Nielsen findings that the declines "seem driven by some broader attitudinal and lifestyle changes."

The paper says the methodological "improvement" accounting for the single biggest decline—20% of the total—is an adjustment in the number of "dependent young adults" in the national household ratings sample this season. Dependent young adults is a subset of men 18-34 living at home with their parents, the overwhelming majority (72%) of whom fall between the ages of 18 and 24.

Last year, Nielsen said, this subgroup of men were under-represented in the national-people-meter sample by approximately 2%. This year, however, there is a roughly 1% over-representation of the subgroup (known as "DYA" in TV research lingo).

Historically, researchers say, DYAs watch less TV than 18- to 34-year-old men who are heads of households. According to Nielsen's data, the DYAs watched about half as much TV this September.

Hispanic men 18-34 is another subgroup that is under-represented in Nielsen's sample but accounts for less than 2% of this year's usage decline, the company said.

Still to come, Nielsen said, is a "major study" currently being conducted to see to what extent, if any, Nielsen family members simply get tired of pushing the buttons to log on to the people meter before and after watching TV.

Brad Adgate, research chief for ad agency Horizon Media, warned against overreacting to the ratings shortfall. The broadcast networks are not a lost medium for young men, he said. "TV is still a powerful medium to sell products and create brand awareness. It is just perhaps this year's new programs had very little to offer."