The fact is, this was a great summer for TV, but lost in the broadcasters' spinning is that 2004 will go down in the books as another hot "summer of cable."
Just consider the numbers: Prime-time usage for the summer to date among men 18-34 is up 4% over 2003. However, broadcast-network viewing for the same period is actually down 7.1%, with CBS the only network to show gains over year-ago levels. So if it didn't come from the broadcast networks, where did the growth come from?
Not surprisingly, given recent history, it came from basic cable. Since the end of June, basic cable in prime grew more than 1.5 rating points among men 18 to 34. Yes, young men are indeed back watching TV this summer.
The whole "where are the men?" debate, refers, of course, to the major drop in prime-time viewing among men that began last fall. Since the end of post-season baseball, the broadcasters had been up in arms regarding the defection of young adults, especially men, from their then-new prime-time schedules.
Pointing their collective finger at Nielsen, their arguments focused exclusively on changes in Nielsen's sample and weighting procedures initiated last September in an effort to improve the service.
In November, Nielsen released its promised "white paper," an analysis of the issues raised by broadcasters as well as other possible factors contributing to the decline, and found that methodological changes would account for only a fraction of the loss.
At the time, and with many cable networks posting year-on-year gains, our position was that the patterns we saw in the 2003-04 TV season were not aberrations, or methodological inconsistencies, but, rather, glimpses of the future that will likely continue, and accelerate.
More to the point, the changes we saw had their roots in the very specific lifestyles, viewing behavior and tastes of young people.
the perfect storm
It's a phenomenon we called "TV's perfect storm," because during 2003-04, we saw a convergence of three factors that drove viewers, especially younger ones, away from broadcast TV and, in looking for shows relevant to the specific ways they consume media, toward the programming schedules found on cable. Those three converging factors were: increasingly irrelevant broadcast scheduling; uninspired broadcast programs; and a menu of targeted cable networks and original shows.
Well, batten down the hatches: During the summer of 2004, the perfect storm rages on.
Going back to the earliest days of cable (and the earliest Nielsen reports to gauge cable's audience), summer was an opportunity for cable to expand its viewership. After all, the broadcasters were almost exclusively in reruns, and cable offered an alternative, although the overall landscape of viewing choices was limited.
But over the years, the quantity and quality of viewing options has grown exponentially, as compelling original programming began to come from broadcast and from cable, and cable gradually grew its audience while the broadcast share declined.
But during the summer of 2003, the broadcast/cable battle seemed to heat up. As the broadcast share dropped below 50% for the first time, it became clear that something more was going on.
We saw this "something more" as the influence of today's younger audiences. These audiences are the "media actives," people born since the mid-70s, who have never settled for "forced choice" or "least-objectionable programming"; who grew up with a what-I-want-when-I-want-it attitude toward entertainment and media; who take a much more active role in their media selection than their parents.
Broadcasters have not yet matched their scheduling strategies to this generation. Well, with so many options, this audience is impatient, selective and has a low tolerance for anything that isn't new and different. They are therefore drawn to continuous new-program introductions. Broadcast TV, despite paying lip service to year-round new series, still focuses on the fall, and the majority of this summer's programming continued to be reruns.
This summer, Fox put some muscle behind its announcement of new series, and met with some success. Fox dominates the rankings among young men with shows like "Simple Life 2" and "Trading Spouses." But even those shows were not enough for Fox, already the No. 1 broadcast network among young men, to post any growth over year-ago numbers. Meanwhile, ABC and NBC, relying mostly on reruns, both posted double-digit declines.
Basic cable, with original new shows, increased viewing among young men. That growth was spread across the basic-cable spectrum, with at least 15 networks seeing double-digit growth in prime time among men 18-34. From ESPN's "Home Run Derby" to Discovery's "American Chopper" to Comedy Central's "Reno 911" to USA's "The 4400" to MTV's "Real World," this summer's cable shows enjoyed audience growth.
So it seems the perfect storm of 2003-04 has continued into summer, and that the media-fragmented future is already here. And while young people who never knew a world without multiple channels, options and technologies may be driving things, their parents have caught on quickly and aren't far behind them. Viewers recognize that there is programming that appeals to them across the dial, and that they can pick and choose those networks and programs that meet their needs.
Young men aren't leaving their couches-they're just making use of the remote controls God gave them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Betsy Frank is exec VP-research and planning for Viacom's MTV Networks, and a former exec VP-director of strategic media-services at Zenith Media Services, a unit of Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi.