Just in time for the start of the crucial November “sweeps” period, Nielsen Media Research says the sudden and alarming drop in broadcast network TV viewers during the first weeks of the fall season, especially among young males, appears to be stabilizing.
“It’s sort of settled out after the playoffs and the World Series,” said Jack Loftus, Nielsen’s VP of communications.
That at least is a bit of good news after weeks of worry by network executives, who have been tossing around reasons for the decline ranging from changes in measurement to a lack of attractive programming to competition from various forms of new media. The one sure thing is that the decline has been far greater than expected.
Network executives witnessed as much as a 12 percent decline in persons using television levels for the men 18 to 34 demographic in the first few weeks, and as much as a 20 percent decline for men 18 to 24.
Nielsen recently sent its clients a memo that suggested the decline may be due to young men’s playing video games, watching DVDs or using the Internet.
Now those numbers are starting to ease up. For example, usage dropped 7 percent vs. a year before for the men 18 to 34 demographic for Oct. 22-26.
Still, Mr. Loftus added, Nielsen is continuing to look at data, including analyzing young male viewing habits in the sample this year vs. a year ago. “They are certainly entitled to an explanation,” he said of Nielsen subscribers.
David Poltrack, executive VP of research for CBS, is concerned but feels the numbers will get back to normal. “These drops are at unprecedented levels. But most likely it’s some form of anomaly that should correct itself,” he said.
Fox, for one, is still worried. In a press release last week discussing the premiere of its valuable show “24,” it said, “The five-net share comparison for 9-10 p.m. last night [Tuesday] vs. comparable levels against last year’s “24” premiere reflects sharp declines among audience in key demos.”
The company notes that adults 18 to 34 earned a 30 share vs. 37 share the year before; teens 12 to 17 posted a 28 share vs. 32 share; and men 18 to 34 had a 24 share vs. 34 share.
Mr. Poltrack dismissed the argument that the drop is due to a lack of interest in current programming or that too many shows are aimed at female viewers. “That argument doesn’t hold,” he said. “We first saw a decline in April and May. Then in mid-August a big decline before the new season started.”
Mr. Poltrack said he’s asked Nielsen to look at whether young male college students who are moving from home to college for the start of the new school year might have something to do with the decline.
Advertisers so far have taken a wait-and-see attitude. If there is a sustained drop in the size of the audience, it could translate into an eventual reduction of many millions of dollars in advertising sales. Some advertisers said they are especially interested in the ratings during “sweeps,” when the networks no longer face disruption from baseball and are rolling out their best shows.
“It’s a concern, but we want to give it another week or two to see if any patterns change once schedules get more stable,” said Andrew Donchin, senior VP of national broadcast for Carat North America, New York. “We are concerned how much is real and how much comes from the [change in the ratings] sample.”
Still other executives said the data, analyzed against a historical perspective, shouldn’t be alarming.
John Wagner, senior VP and media director for Publicis Groupe’s Starcom Media Group, Chicago, said for example that a 9 percent PUT drop in the male 18 to 24 demographic in October vs. a year ago should be taken in context with several other years.
For instance, PUT levels of men 18 to 24 in network prime-time shows for the first four weeks of the new broadcast season rose steadily from 22.6 percent in 1998 to 25.3 percent in 2002. For 2003, it dropped to 22.9 percent. But this is only slightly higher than the level of five years ago.
“Over time it’s not a lot of fluctuation,” Mr. Wagner said. “It could be sample size. It could be the weather. It could be that there is only four weeks of data. Just because Nielsen puts out a number that says it’s 22.4 doesn’t mean it is 22.4. These are projections, and they operate in a range.”
Though there are complaints now, media buyers wonder why network executives didn’t voice concerns when usage moved in the other direction. Last year, for example, witnessed a 4 percent leap among viewership by men 18 to 24 from the year before. Nielsen’s Mr. Loftus noted: “I didn’t see a single story on that.”
Nielsen Sample Changed
Earlier this year, Nielsen did change its 5,000 home sample to add, among other segments of the population, more young-adult viewers. Media executives are scratching their heads because other demographic groups were largely unaffected.
Steve Sternberg, senior VP and director of audience analysis for Magna Global USA, New York, believes a big part of the problem is a lack of programming this season that appeals to young men.
“What you do have?” he asked. “You have new shows like CBS’s `Joan of Arcadia.’ This doesn’t appeal to young men.”
In a recent report, Mr. Sternberg noted that much of the early drop affected NBC and Fox programming. He reported that the drop in TV usage by young men amounted to each man watching a half-hour less network programming per week.