The needle on the guy-gauge dropped when Nielsen Media Research recorded an average of 9% fewer prime-time male viewers in the 18-to-24 and 18-to-34 age groups for all TV networks through July, August and September. The unexpected drop, which was even deeper (at 22%) for the leading broadcast networks, stirred media buyers and sellers into a frenzy of speculation as to what had happened to this crucial advertiser target.
But according to Nielsen's newest figures, the dudes may be dialing back in. On the first night of the November sweeps, Oct. 30, male viewers 18-to-34 were down just 1% from last year, while women 18-to-34 were up 3%. Through October, young-male viewership was down 5%, the difference due largely to the Major League Baseball League Championship and World Series programming.
"For the first night of sweeps, everything seems calm," said Jack Loftus, a Nielsen spokesman. "But we've got at least four more weeks of sweeps."
Sellers and buyers will keep a close eye on the sweeps ratings over the next four weeks to see if males come back or continue to disappear.
"We need to see if the `missing men' is something real," said Lyle Schwartz, senior VP-director of media research at WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia. "Is this a statistical fluctuation? Or is there some modification to the way we are reporting the data that is causing the changes? For all I know it could be a little bit of everything. There is a pretty significant segment watching less prime time than ever before."
Analysis, however, by several media agencies, such as Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global, claimed that guys essentially left town a long time ago.
"We're really talking about it going from about 25% of the male 18-34 population to about 23%," said Steve Sternberg, senior VP-director of audience analysis, Magna Global, who issued a "missing men" report last week. "And if we look at just the network portion, it's gone from slightly more than 10% to about 9%."
Mr. Sternberg said it is important to note that men are missing not from TV overall, but just from broadcast. The fall prime-time series, with the exception of Fox TV's new lineup, which began to air just last week, are "designed to appeal to women and older viewers. Why should we be surprised that young men are not interested in the schedule?" he asked. Mr. Sternberg also said cable TV's numbers for the male demographic are stable.
"We're not missing a single man," said Sean Cunningham, president-CEO of Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau. "During the first month of the new prime-time season, not only did we not lose those men, but cable viewership in the male demos grew 2%."
But many executives on the buying and selling side maintain that the low male turnout numbers reflect faulty measurement by Nielsen.
"There is no consistency there," said a broadcast ad sales chief who requested anonymity. One of the executive's top network shows had the same household share as last year but its male 18-to-34 numbers, in the first weeks of the new season, suddenly dropped. "There appears to be a measurement issue here."
A top media buyer concurred: "The game didn't change, it's the scorekeeper that changed. Men didn't disappear overnight, so either the sampling was screwed up in the first place or the sampling is screwed up now."
Nielsen begs to differ. "I don't think it's fair just to assume because there is a decline in audience, Nielsen's doing something wrong," Mr. Loftus said, citing a number of possible factors. "Programming is one, baseball was a factor, video games are up, DVD usage is up. They add up, along with some Nielsen stuff, such as weighting."
Nielsen introduced weighting, the practice of statistically adjusting findings to account for variables in samples, in September. "We looked at weighted and unweighted data, and it didn't change the numbers much," said Mr. Loftus.
The stakes for networks and advertisers are high in November, media buyers said.
"If male viewers are not watching TV, there are other outlets for advertisers to reach them," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of audience analysis for Horizon Media. "People who target this group will have to rethink a strategy that may incorporate less television in their media schedule."