One unseasonably warm evening in September, 24-year-old Tyler W. sat in his Jersey City, N.J., apartment in front of his TV. But the financial analyst wasn't watching a sitcom rerun, an entertainment gossip show, the nightly news or even ESPN. Instead, Tyler was playing EA Sports' FIFA Soccer 2004, a team sport video game, on his Microsoft Xbox.
Tyler usually plays video games or surfs the Internet for about an hour or two after work. In the past, that's time he might have spent watching TV. â€œI like the interactivity of sports video games,â€? says Tyler, who didn't wish to give his full name. â€œI don't get that from television.â€?
Unfortunately for TV executives, Tyler isn't a rare exception. When Nielsen Media Research's fall sweeps ratings came out this past November, they clearly showed that men between the ages of 18 and 34 were watching less television, particularly fewer prime-time shows.
For the time period during the autumn weeks when many vaunted network shows hit the airwaves for the first time, Nielsen's data concluded that men 18 to 34 watched a hotly debated 7.7 percent less, or 270 fewer seconds, of prime-time TV programming a day than they did a year earlier. That may seem an insignificant drop, but Nielsen's research shows that younger men have been watching less television for the past 12 years and are no longer glued to the boob tube.
Collectively, this group accounts for about 12 percent of TV's total audience. For ad-supported network and cable TV channels, with more than $37 billion in annual revenue, the male 18- to â€” 34-year-old demographic accounts for about $4.3 billion. So, every minute that young males don't watch prime-time programming could carry a potential price tag of about $77 million across network, cable, national syndication and national Hispanic TV channels. At the same time, 18- to 34-year-olds purchased 50 percent of all video games, consoles and accessories sold in 2000, according to Interactive Digital Software Association. NPD Group estimates this market is worth $10.6 billion.
Still, TV industry experts blame a large part of the drop in male viewers last fall to the networks' failure to introduce new shows that snagged them. During the fall season, the most popular programs were The Simpsons, Friends and CSI. New shows that had a measure of success, such as The O.C. and Joan of Arcadia, appealed more to women. â€œThe majority of it is geared toward womenâ€¦. I mean, obviously, The Bachelor and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.â€? says Scott A., a 23-year-old financial analyst who lives in Wayne, Pa. (Scott also didn't want his full name published.) â€œI watch football. I don't watch any sitcoms, let's put it that way.â€?
Younger men also have found other ways to spend their free time: playing video games, watching DVDs, tuning in to cable channels, logging on to the Internet or ordering video-on-demand. Nielsen's research shows that among men 18 to 34, daily video game use jumped 22 percent during the period from the end of September to mid-November compared with the same period in 2002. While network viewership was down in fall 2003, ad-supported cable networks, such as ESPN and MTV, saw a 0.8 percent gain in their prime-time ratings over the previous year.
As TV loses its appeal among younger men, advertisers are using divining rods to follow the money. The PGA Tour, which tries to attract younger fans, sponsors EA Sports' golf video game, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004. It even includes a section where the player can outfit his virtual persona with accessories from Nike, Tag Heuer and Adidas. Kris Magel, senior vice president and group director of national broadcast at Optimedia, a New York advertising firm, says, â€œPartnerships with the developers of these games is a really interesting way to try to get in front of these guys.â€?
Some media critics think the young-male maelstrom is much ado about nothing. Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk show host (whose audience is mainly men over the age of 35), believes marketers worry too much. In a posting on his Web site in the fall, he wrote: â€œThe networks are losing the deadbeat demographic. We're not talking about women here. We're talking about 18- to 34-year-old men, who still live at home with their parents.â€?
Limbaugh may be missing something, though. There are an estimated 32.7 million men in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 34, or about 11.25 percent of the population. Within 10 years, this age group will grow 4 percent to 33.9 million. Even though younger men spend less money than other demographic groups, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic's Consumer Expenditure Survey in 2002, they will splurge more as they age and as their paychecks become heftier. Which is why advertisers want to reach younger men while they're forming brand loyalties.
â€œMen 18 to 34 are hugely valuable,â€? says Steve Grubbs, partner and CEO of PHD, the media arm of Omnicom Group, a New York advertising and marketing firm. â€œThere are a whole slew of product categories that depend on that demographic. Ask WB, MTV, Pepsi, Coke or Sony Playstation. That's their bread and butter.â€?
When Nielsen released its numbers in the fall, broadcast media giants, such as NBC and CBS, were outraged. Network executives said Nielsen's updated mathematical methodology and population estimation system for counting viewers and weighting audiences introduced new inaccuracies into TV ratings for that age group. New data revealed that for men between 18 and 34, there was a sharp 5.8 percent drop in total day (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) broadcast TV viewing and an even steeper 7.7 percent decline in prime-time broadcast viewing from the same period the previous year. That is an average loss of about 4.5 minutes, or 270 seconds, of broadcast viewing during prime-time.
Some defend Nielsen's findings. â€œI believe that the Nielsen system is better than ever,â€? says Shari Anne Brill, vice president, director of programming at Carat USA, a New York advertising firm. â€œAlthough, it still stands to be improved because it needs to keep pace with the technological advances that are out there.â€?
Facing severe criticism from TV networks, Nielsen examined its research for possible errors in its data collection process, or problems with its samples. It had changed its methodology to account for the increasing Hispanic population, to recognize the growing number of dependant young adults (those who live at home with their parents) and to bring its audience sample more in line with current population estimates.
In late November, Nielsen published a 43-page paper, concluding that it had found no errors in the collection process. However, Nielsen acknowledged that changes in methodology could account for 40 percent of the drop in prime-time viewing. Which means that 60 percent of the ratings decrease were traced back to younger men tuning out.
Nielsen's controversy aside, younger men do seem to be losing interest in prime-time TV, as they turn to other forms of entertainment such as cable shows, video games, the Internet, digital video recorders (DVRs), DVDs, movies and video-on-demand. TV executives, as well as advertisers, are realizing that men, who have grown up with video games and the Internet, are likely to use several kinds of media. â€œIt would behoove advertisers who are interested in reaching that demographic to recognize the trend and look at the possibilities of other venues,â€? says Brill.
Optimedia's Magel says his clients consider different media to reach younger males. â€œWe are looking to learn how to provide the best options for our clients across all forms of media,â€? he says. â€œIt makes sense to get involved with them early, test out new things, and be the ones to have the relationships with these companies when they start to reach critical mass.â€?
Savvy advertisers have already allocated large chunks of their marketing budgets to other mediums. While Volkswagen spent over $125 million on television advertising in 2003, the car company also paid Sony Computer Entertainment to have one of its vehicles featured in Gran Turismo 3: A Spec. In the car racing game, the player can buy different car models from the Dodge Viper to Volkswagen's new Beetle.
Then there are advertisers who have taken the next step and created their own content. In 2001, BMW hired some of Hollywood's top action movie directors â€” John Woo, Guy Ritchie and Ang Lee, to create short films featuring the company's cars. â€œThe best way to reach them [men 18 to 34] is to provide the content, like BMWfilms.com,â€? says Magel. â€œIt is el numero uno as far as the best way to speak with them. But it's not like companies that sell pattern baldness cures are going to be able to provide these great films.â€?
Some ad executives say their TV counterparts can lure back younger men if they provide programming for them. â€œIt does seem that there are networks out there that appeal to this demo that are doing better in cable,â€? Magel says. â€œMTV has better programming for them, and Spike is doing well. There are places where they are going.â€?
As Carat USA publication Broadcast Beat put it in its November 10, 2003 issue: â€œIt has been demonstrated that viewers (of all ages) return to TV when there is programming of interest to them. Simply put, the reason that network ratings among young men are down is because the networks haven't offered up the programming that attracts them.â€?
TV executives may provide programming that appeals to younger men, but advertisers still have to face the fact that males aren't going to be content flipping their TV channels anymore. So, advertisers will have to go where the young men are.
Back at home, Tyler W. plays his video games. If advertisers want to reach him and other young males, they have to realize they're more than just couch potatoes.
Young Men Without A Future
A Nielsen Media Research white-paper released November 24, 2003 called renewed attention to a 12-year downward trend in viewership rates of young male adults. This decline looms as a critical threat to television advertisers and networks. Even if TV recovers from sudden drops like the one that occurred this past fall, an analysis of the long-term outlook reveals that a double whammy is about to slam TV economics in the years ahead: The prospect of less usage among men ages 18 to 34, combined with marked growth in size of that demographic that will take place in the next decade, due to â€œShadow Boomâ€? birthrates from 1985 to 1995. If Nielsen's historical 12-year trend of a decreasing percentage of 18- to 34-year-old males using TV tracks at the same rate of decline over the next 10 years, and the size of the demographic grows, the actual number of television users in this group will suffer further losses (down 2 percent between 2003 and 2013). What's more, there will be an increase in the size of the demo (up 4 percent between 2003 and 2013), a cause for even more concern among advertisers who covet this demographic for their products and services. The question that follows: will marketers who need this demographic to support their bottom line continue to allocate millions of dollars to a TV advertising budget that no longer provides the results it once did?
Where the Boys Aren't
There has been a steady decrease in the percentage of 18- to 34-year-old males tuning in during prime-time. Below is the PUT (Persons Using Television %) during the September sweeps period for the past 12 years.
Growing Young Men
The current population of men age 18 to 34 in the U.S. is 32.6 million, but in the next 10 years, with the influx of the Baby Boomers' children, this demographic will grow by 4 percent to almost 34 million.
The Double Whammy
As the size of the male 18 to 34 demographic grows in the next 10 years, the number of them watching television will decrease, and the share of non-users will grow bigger and bigger.
The Value of Young Men
Some big names like Procter & Gamble are paying huge sums to get products such as Old Spice and Men's Choice hair coloring from Clairol in front of the eyes of men 18 to 34 during prime-time.