A year ago broadcast television was stunned by what appeared to be a sudden 10 percent drop in the number of young men watching television. Some pundits jumped on the phenomenon, claiming it meant much over-the-air TV was no longer of great interest to these men 18 to 34, who they said were more likely to be playing video games or watching a DVD of the latest R-rated movie.
A year later, the young men are back. Men 18 to 34 are watching slightly more prime-time network TV-up 2 percent-versus a year ago to a PUT level of 30.1 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Now the real question is whether they ever really went away, or whether the whole thing was an error in how they were counted by Nielsen Media Research.
“It caused the business to lose a lot of money,” said Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development for NBC. “The fact of the matter is we were right. People were saying TV was irrelevant to young people of this generation-and that just wasn’t the case. The use of the medium moves glacially. People just don’t stop using television.”
“There is nothing to suggest there is a defection of young males from television,” agreed David Poltrack, executive VP of research and planning for CBS.
Mr. Wurtzel was among those a year ago who complained publicly that the decline could really be a problem with the survey sample. In fact, some months later, Nielsen did explain that 40 percent of the young male viewership drop was due to measurement changes among its national sample of 5,000 viewers.
This year Mr. Wurtzel says Nielsen’s “sample is righting itself.”
Last year Nielsen began “weighting” its sample primarily because certain demographics groups such as young men and Spanish-language viewers weren’t fairly represented. With “weighting,” Nielsen adds comparable-but not actual-data for a specific demographic group when it can’t get enough actual data from its sample households.
“The young men were never missing, they were just watching less prime-time television last seasion. There was never any mystery about that,” said Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus.
Since spring 2004, young male viewers have gradually come back to television, according to Nielsen.
“The second quarter of 2004 was flat [versus a year ago],” said David Poltrack. “And the third quarter was up 5 percent from a year before. And now it’s up 2 percent. It shows that nothing substantial is going on.” That means, he said, these changes are in line with historical research fluctuations.
Mr. Poltrack cautioned the season is still early, and actual viewing by young males could be higher. A number of things have made for unusual patterns. For instance on one Thursday night, when male viewing is typically high, the schedule was disrupted by a presidential debate. Another factor could be that major league baseball, with strong male appeal, started the playoffs a bit later this year.
Mr. Poltrack noted that two years ago the ratings for young males were inflated by some factors, including the success of “The Sopranos,” which was a major hit among all demographic groups. “It’s increasingly clear that the numbers two years ago were extraordinarily high,” said Mr. Poltrack.
In 2003, HBO aired the far less popular “Carnivale.”
Mr. Wurtzel said Nielsen should continue to question its methodology for the whole industry-not just for one network. “It was never an issue of market share for NBC,” he said. “This is a research issue. It was never about TV versus the other mediums.”