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Trying to Reach the Lost Boys

Nov 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As the debate rages over the precise reasons for the precipitous decline in network viewing among young adult men this season, the problem seems far more academic for media planners.
Whether it’s being caused by changes in the viewing habits of young men or is due to problems in Nielsen’s ratings methodology, it all comes down to the same thing: There simply are fewer rating points available to reach a demographic that already was difficult to reach and is in extremely high demand by network advertisers.
In effect, the erosion of network rating points in men 18 to 24 exacerbates what was already a big problem for advertisers, agencies and the networks and will only serve to increase costs to all concerned.
The networks are feeling it in their pocketbooks by having to shell out countless make-goods for failing to make upfront audience guarantees based on young male viewers. Agencies will have to expend even greater resources in their efforts to research, plan and buy programming that is likely to capture these elusive males. And for advertisers, the costs represent a double whammy. They get hit in the near term by missing their original gross rating point delivery goals for this season. And they face the prospect of paying even higher costs per thousand to reach young men in the future.
The problem isn’t new, ad agency executives noted, it’s just getting worse. In his own assessment of the young male ratings debacle, Steve Sternberg, senior VP, audience research, at Magna Global USA, concluded the shift is not simply a Nielsen error, but represents part of an ongoing migration of young male viewers to other TV programming and other media options. In fact, Mr. Sternberg found that the dismal men 18 to 24 rating average during the first four weeks of the 2003-04 season actually is only the third lowest in the past eight years. (1996 and 1998 were worse.) The cause, Mr. Sternberg said, is that the networks have simply failed to schedule programming that appeals to young men. He noted that cable network ratings and ratings for other network dayparts are actually stable among young men.
“You’ve really got to look more deeply into this to understand what’s going on,” added Mary-Ellen Vincent, senior VP, director of insights and value creation, at MediaVest USA. Like others, Ms. Vincent cited the growing popularity of new media among young men, especially the Internet and video gaming systems, but she said a deeper inspection of network viewing patterns reveals that the decline “is occurring outside the top-rated programs.”
“That’s something that has been overlooked. In many cases, it’s the lower-rated shows that have been hurt,” she said.
In fact, young male viewers did return to network prime-time TV in droves during Fox’s coverage of postseason baseball, and they seemed to have stuck around for the week following it. Whether and for how long they stay is anybody’s guess, media planners said, but what is not bound to change is their importance to many major brands.
“Brand preferences begin to set in at a fairly young age for a number of important categories,” explained Ms. Vincent, citing credit cards, cars and “even food and beverages” as prime examples. And because of some of the new media options they are migrating to-video games and DVDs, for example-it’s not easy for planners to come up with alternative media options.
One safety valve in recent years has been the surge of so-called laddie magazines, racy and irreverent men’s publications that are to this generation what Playboy was to their father’s (or possibly grandfather’s). But such magazines, including FHM, Maxim and Razor, can deliver only so many young male impressions and absorb only so many advertising dollars.
The reality, MediaVest’s Ms. Vincent said, is that young men are both a dilemma and a paradox. They are a dilemma because they are so hard to reach, she said. But they’re a paradox because when advertisers do reach them, they tend to be much more receptive to advertising messages than older generations.
In fact, a study released last week by MediaVest found that viewers under 25 spend 20 percent less time watching television than their older counterparts but are twice as likely as older viewers to pay “high attention” to TV commercials. In contrast, an older demo, adults 45 to 59, represents the biggest users of television, but these viewers are 34 percent less likely to pay high attention to TV commercials.
Ms. Vincent said the research does not fully explain such behavior, but she has her own thoughts on what might be driving it. “My theory is that younger viewers are more used to clutter. They grew up with it. Older people simply grew up in a time when there was less clutter. As a result, younger people are just more tolerant of more commercials.”
In other words, young men may be difficult for advertisers to reach on TV, but when they reach them, they tend to yield a bigger bang for the buck. This principle is not unique to young men. Ad agencies have been developing a wide range of methods to index the attentiveness of viewers to TV programming or TV commercials as a new factor for planning media buys. Agencies use different terms to describe such attentiveness, but the folks at MediaVest are fond of “engagement.”
Whether it’s called attentiveness, engagement or involvement, planners seem to agree on one thing: It’s the new currency of the media marketplace. And in a way, that suggests there may be a bright side to the generational shift that currently is causing the network executives aggravation.
While younger viewers-especially young men-are lighter viewers, they also are inherently more valuable viewers as far as Madison Avenue is concerned. And as they begin to represent a greater share of the TV audience, these younger viewers theoretically should increase the overall impact of TV advertising. In other words, the future of network TV could well be that less is more.