August 9, 2004
Young Men Are Back Watching TV. But Did They Ever Leave?
nlike those other notoriously missing items - the weapons of mass destruction - television's missing young men appear to have been found, back in front of their TV sets.
The case of the missing young men began roiling the television industry a year ago. Droves of men from ages 18 to 34, one of the groups most coveted by advertisers, had seemingly stopped watching television, according to the sole ratings arbiter, Nielsen Media Research. Commentary abounded that a significant cultural shift had taken place and that a generation of men was steadily quitting television-viewing, forsaking both network and cable programs in favor of video games, DVD's and the Internet.
Nielsen stands by its ratings, but in a development that several Nielsen critics call utterly predictable, the most recent evidence indicates that the young men are back, watching television in pretty much the same numbers they were two years ago.
In July, one year after the falloff was detected, an average of 25.8 percent of men from ages 18 to 34 were watching television at any given moment in prime time. That figure was up from the 24.7 percent that Nielsen reported a year ago - and virtually the same as the 25.9 percent that it reported for the group in July 2002.
"It kind of went right back to where God intended it to be," the president for research for NBC, Alan Wurtzel, said.
Mr. Wurtzel's facetiousness was matched by a real sense of vindication. He was among the most vocal of the critics who took on Nielsen last year, saying its numbers - which in September showed a drop in viewing by young men of more than 10 percent - could not possibly be accurate because they were so inconsistent with viewing patterns established over years of measurement.
"None of this made conceptual sense," Mr. Wurtzel said. The decreases in viewing were seen in all kinds of areas, including professional football games and late-night comedy shows, traditional staples for younger men.
"Usage numbers move glacially," Mr. Wurtzel said. "Double-digit declines just don't happen."
The dispute has had significant financial implications. Nielsen, owned by VNU, enjoys a monopoly in delivering ratings information, which determines how an estimated $40 billion in television advertising revenue is spent each year.
With the young male numbers off so sharply, Mr. Wurtzel said, networks lost millions of dollars in advertising sales last fall and winter. "We lost inventory we can never regain," Mr. Wurtzel said - and all for a measurement, he argued, that should have been dismissed as bogus to begin with.
But Nielsen executives do not agree that last year's ratings were wrong. "The numbers were accurate then, and the numbers are accurate now,'' Nielsen's chief research executive, Paul Donato, said.
He added, "The numbers suggest that young men are watching more television this year, after they watched less last year."
Among the programming attracting young men, are repeats of Comedy Central's biggest hit, "Chappelle's Show," and numerous hours devoted to poker on cable.
To Nielsen's critics - who mostly reside at the broadcast networks, because they have the most revenue to lose - the ratings company is consistently maddening. But undoing Nielsen's monopoly status would be prohibitively expensive. The networks tried in the late 1990's with a company called Smart, run by Statistical Research Inc. But when the company said it needed $12 million from each network to become a full-fledged competitor, the deal collapsed. And there are no plans to try again.
Critics acknowledge that what Nielsen is trying to do - accurately measure a passive behavior like watching television - is inherently difficult.
It is especially difficult with young men, they say, because that group is the least likely to do what Nielsen wants: cooperate with a system that demands they push buttons every time they watch TV or change channels. What makes it worse, the critics say, is that young men are now more likely to be living with their parents, but may do most of their television viewing away from home.
This is hardly the first time that discrepancies have turned up in the ratings. While Nielsen always defends its numbers as accurate, over time the measurements typically return to their normal levels. Critics say that Nielsen must have tinkered with its methodology in those instances; Nielsen denies doing so.
As recently as 1998, the networks were up in arms because of a similar disappearance of young viewers, among both sexes. NBC accused Nielsen of fraud and threatened to sue over breach of contract. Within a few months, the numbers started to swing back. The suit was never filed.
After last year's report of declining viewership, Nielsen executives suggested larger cultural reasons for the trend. Nielsen sent a memorandum to clients, speculating that one possible cause was the increase in the number of young men playing video games and watching DVD's. A Nielsen spokesman, Jack Loftus, even speculated that the number of young men off fighting the war in Iraq might be affecting the numbers.
That especially enraged network executives.
"Besides being ridiculous on its face," said David F. Poltrack, the executive vice president for research for CBS, "they could have checked the Iraq thing easily by just polling their measurement sample to see how many young men from those families had gone to Iraq."
To many network executives, the Iraq explanation was typical of the way Nielsen has grabbed at culture change to try to explain statistical anomalies.
In the 1998 dispute, Nielsen sent ABC a letter in which it suggested that one reason for the drop-off was lower interest rates on homes - prompting young people to move a lot and thus drop out of the Nielsen sample.
In the latest case, the network critics were also insulted by a suggestion that it all came down to their lousy programming. Even if young men hated new shows like NBC's "Coupling" and Fox's "American Juniors," the executives argued, they were unlikely to have stopped watching television altogether.
Now, Mr. Wurtzel noted, the same young men have suddenly found television to their liking again - and, he said, "it doesn't seem like all that many of them have made it back from Iraq yet."
Mr. Donato again offered programming as an explanation, and pointed to specific shows that seem to have made a difference. With its heavy schedule of "Chappelle's Show," for example, Comedy Central's ratings have risen more than 50 percent this summer, while on the Discovery Channel, young men seem to be watching the show "American Chopper" in big numbers. On the networks, Fox's "The Simple Life'' and "Trading Spouses'' have performed well.
Then again, television had plenty of hits last summer as well, including NBC's "For Love or Money'' and Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
Nielsen's reluctance to admit error drives its critics to distraction. They point out that Nielsen finally conceded last fall that 40 percent of the falloff in young male viewing was attributable to changes in methodology - but only after critics pushed it to analyze its system.
Mr. Donato said last year's changes in methodology, which included a system for weighting results to make sure the sample reflected the true demographic makeup of the audience, only made Nielsen's measure more accurate.
"The sample is in the best shape it has ever been in," Mr. Donato said.
What about all those sweeping statements last year about how the drop-off in viewing pointed to long-term cultural change?
"Nielsen should never be talking about what things mean for the culture," Mr. Donato said. "The only thing we should be out front about is what our numbers say."