The findings, which come from an exhaustive internal analysis conducted by Nielsen Media Research, as well as an independent study by Interpublic's Magna Global USA unit, counter assertions by the major broadcast networks that Nielsen is to blame. When ratings for men 18-24 - a troublesome and fluky demographic to begin with - began plummeting this season, the networks claimed it was sloppy research on Nielsen's part, not the appeal of their own programming, that was at fault.
In a report sent to clients on Tuesday, Nielsen asserted, "Young male viewers are, in fact, watching less primetime television this year than last."
Nielsen said the primetime fall off ranged from 8 percent to 12 percent, though total day viewing among the demo is actually up slightly over last year. Nielsen attributed at least part of the decline to changes in media usage patterns by young adult males, noting, for example, that video game usage among young males has risen in primetime. It also noted that there have been increases in DVD usage. And while the client white paper didn't says so, Nielsen executives said they believed young males also are engaging in other new media activities, including the Internet, all at the expense of network TV.
It's clearly at the expense of the broadcast networks, they say, because there has not been any corresponding decline in viewing to cable networks.
And while Nielsen was not explicit about the cause for these shifting viewing patterns, Steve Sternberg, senior vice president-audience research at Magna didn't mince words in his report, asserting, "It's the programming, stupid."
After exploring several scenarios, Sternberg said the agency concluded that the viewing decline is real and that young men simply are tuning at network TV because it is not as appealing to them.
"Young viewers don't watch television simply because it's there," said Sternberg. "You have to put on programs they want to watch - just like any other group of viewers, maybe even more so. And at least through the first month of the season, there is not much on network television geared to young men."
Actually, Nielsen Tuesday said that had begun to change by the second month, when Fox's coverage of post-season baseball brought back young males in droves. In fact, they appear to have stayed there for the first week following the end of the baseball season.
If they weren't being sampled properly or if the ratings decline reflected an actual decrease in overall TV usage by young adult males, Nielsen executives said it's not likely that the networks would have seen a surge in the demographic during Fox's baseball coverage.
How well the networks will be able to hold on to that rebound isn't clear, but if they don't, it's clear that they will be shelling out an awful lot of makegoods to compensate advertisers for failing to meet ratings guarantees. While the networks are loath to guarantee against an explicit 18-24 year old demo, that subset is a key component of the broader and commonly guaranteed men 18-34 demo, which is beginning to feel the effects of the younger male slide.
The reason: due to population shifts, men 18-24 represent a greater share of the men 18-34 demo and they tend to watch less TV than their older counterparts.
That's not something that is likely to change, barring a breakthrough in network programming strategies. As a result, the supply of young adult male gross rating points is bound to erode, which theoretically should drive advertising costs for buying the demo through the roof.
For its part, Magna says this is nothing new, noting that men 18-24 have always been a "fluky" demo. In fact, Magna noted that in two of the past eight years (1996 and 1998) primetime usage among men 18-24 has actually been lower than this year (see data below).
Not everyone is convinced. Network executives continue to maintain the falloff is extraordinary - to extraordinary to be accounted for by natural changes in consumer behavior.
"TV use is habitual behavior and habits are hard to change," said Alan Wurtzel, president-research at NBC, adding, "I do think we'll find out there was something wrong in the methodology"
"It is our feeling that the whole question of the decline in the 18-34 viewing demographic is an extraordinary situation," added Dave Poltrack, executive vice president-planning and research at CBS. "We have never seen a decline of this significance before."
"The [TV viewing] behavior of the general population doesn't really change," concurred Gale Metzger, president of Statistical Research Inc. and head of the SMART TV ratings lab, as well as a series of CONTAM (Committee on Nationwide Television Audience Measurement) studies, he said proved that fact years ago. In fact, Metzger suggested the real problem with young men is an ongoing issue of cooperation rates, especially in households where young men are still living at home with parents who may have opted into the Nielsen sample.
Men 18-24 Primetime Usage
Year Weeks 1-4 Season-March
1993 26.9 27.5
1994 26.2 27.5
1995 25.3 26.3
1996 22.5 24.9
1997 23.8 25.0
1998 22.6 23.3
1999 23.2 23.8
2000 24.1 25.8
2001 24.4 24.6
2002 25.3 25.4
2003 22.9 ????
Source: Magna Global USA analysis of data from Nielsen Media Research.