Exodus of Soap Viewers on Big 3

Jan 3, 2005  •  Post A Comment

So far this season, through Nov. 28, 18- to 34-year-old female viewers for daytime soap operas on the Big 3 networks are down a whopping 18 percent versus a year ago. Nielsen Media Research has a theory about the loss, but TV and ad agency executives don’t like the explanation.

CBS, the longtime overall total viewership leader in daytime television, lost more young female viewers than other broadcast networks-25 percent-versus the same period a year ago, Nielsen said. The leader in daytime female 18 to 34 ratings, NBC, dropped 17 percent. ABC, second place in daytime among women 18 to 34, lost 9 percent of its young female viewers.

In a report released to TV network and advertising agency research executives last week, Nielsen said the big drop in young women is due to changes in the Nielsen People Meter sample that took effect last year and which included more Spanish-language viewers. A general shift among young female viewers to non-network television programming is another factor, Nielsen said.

But ad agency and TV research executives don’t exactly buy this theory.

“If it is indeed the change in the sample, we should see this reflected in other dayparts,” said Lyle Schwartz, senior VP and director of media research at Mediaedge:cia. “So far, we don’t.”

For instance, Mr. Schwartz said, overall network prime-time ratings are flat so far this year versus a year ago-which in itself is unusual. Typically, due to audience erosion, network prime-time television viewership drops 4 percent to 6 percent per year. That’s about how much TV researchers have been expecting young female viewership to drop on network daytime show.

Nielsen said about half of the 18 percent drop in young female viewers is due to new young females added to its sample. Nielsen said it is these women-mostly Spanish-speaking viewers-who seemingly are watching Spanish-language TV such as Univision and Telemundo.

Accounting only the new females in its sample, Nielsen said the networks would be down 8 percent.

“That’s not unexpected,” said David Poltrack, executive VP of research and planning for CBS Television Network. “In daytime there is a lot of seasonality. The 8 percent may be real. But that’s not the issue. Eight percent is not 18 percent.”

Michael Mellon, senior VP of research at ABC, said there are so many changes in the Nielsen sample it’s impossible to make a judgment about the TV measurement company’s effectiveness. For instance, new local market viewing homes are being added to the national People Meter sample every few months. In 2006 Atlanta will be added, providing sample homes in the 10th of top local markets. “It’s going to be 2011 before we have a five-year track on all the changes,” he said.

Right now, Mr. Mellon has no complaints about ABC’s daytime numbers. ABC has seen less of a drop than other networks. Through December, ABC numbers are off only 3 percent versus a year ago. NBC executives didn’t return phone calls by press time.

Nielsen said its adjusted sample is now more representative of the population as a whole. Since the start of this season, Nielsen said, 17.7 percent of its female 18 to 34 sample consists of Spanish-language viewers, up from 15.4 percent a year ago.

Mr. Poltrack said more questions need to be asked. For instance, why is there a decline in African American woman 18 to 34 for network daytime soaps, and why do older females, whether white or black, have drastically different rating trends than their younger counterparts?

“The Young and the Restless,” a CBS show, for example, has seen a 47 percent drop in African American female 18 to 34 viewers this season. But African American females 35-plus are up 2 percent. The show didn’t lose young white females this year, but older white females are down 14 percent.

“There is no logic to this,” Mr. Poltrack said. “Is there something about the show that doesn’t appeal to African Americans? Then African American women 35-plus should be down as well as the African American women 18 to 34. Is there something that doesn’t appeal to young women overall? Then the white female numbers should be down as well [as young African American women].”

Mr. Poltrack added: “It would appear the decline is from the new sample. Then the question is, `What is going on with the African American women?”‘ He said CBS has posed that question to Nielsen, which has yet to offer an explanation.

Nielsen’s analysis will continue. A number of studies are already in development, including one that looks at shifts in viewing to non-network broadcast television and advertiser-supported cable-such as on SoapNet, a network devoted to soap operas-as well as at changes in daytime VCR recording habits.