We unravel the mystery of where the boys (18-34) are

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I didn't see any on my train during the commute in to work this morning, even after walking through several cars, but I wasn't too concerned at that point. From a taxicab window a little later, I swore I spotted a few, but when the driver pulled over and I jumped out they had scattered and were nowhere to be found.

It was then that I began to understand what it feels like to be a frustrated broadcast TV executive or marketer baffled by this fall's main mystery: Where are all the 18-to-34-year-old men?

They're apparently not where they can usually be found this time of year-sitting passively before their TV sets, bathed contentedly in the flicker of images from sitcoms, football games, beach volleyball and beer ads.

In the opening weeks of this year's fall TV season, viewership among men 18-to-34, a lucrative target for many marketers, was down 7% from a year ago for all TV nets and 22% for the top TV broadcasters.

So where have they gone?

I decided to ask the people who were out looking for them, starting with a 30-something single New York woman.

When I e-mailed my friend Sharon to ask if she knew where they could be found, she quoted the great philosopher Miranda, of HBO's "Sex and the City."

"She says they're on `The Island of Lost Men,'" Sharon wrote. "I think she's right. In fact, I'm booking my ticket tomorrow."

If a single New York woman can't find them, they're well-hidden. Still, I persisted.

Not surprisingly, executives from rival media claimed to know the whereabouts of the missing men.

"They've gone keyboarding!" said Wenda Harris Millard, chief sales officer for Yahoo! (slogan: "We love exclamation marks!"). Wenda cited statistics showing growth in Internet visits to sports and finance sites, "both typically male-oriented subjects."

Steven T. Florio, president-CEO of Conde Nast Publications, said the men are not online but "hiding in bars, playing video-games, watching ESPN and avoiding stupid shows like `Queer Eye' and `Fear Factor."' The smarter young men, he said, unable to resist plugging his own products (as all good salesmen are), "read GQ, Details and The New Yorker." They don't, Steve added, apropos of nothing, "think Jack Black movies are funny."

I asked Jon Cropper, a man who is in the demographic and controls a marketing budget. Jon, the youthful head of youth marketing for Nissan North America, has a simple philosophy: "If you're looking for 21-to-34 guys," he said, "go where the women are."

"We are searching for a cool mate. That means finding energy to go out during the week," he explained. Even when they're too tired to go out, Jon said men in his age group don't tune in to Must-See TV. "By the time we get home, we're exhausted. We'd rather get a DVD or burn stress on PlayStation."

Jim McDowell, marketing chief at BMW of North America, also believes the missing men are "spending an hour a day more with X-Box or PlayStation." The clever ones," he added, optimistically, "are out driving. It's an incredible sunny afternoon."

Top prize for self-promotion goes to the man who also made the strongest argument that he has stolen at least some of the missing eyeballs: Tom Freston, chairman of Viacom's MTV Networks.

"By God, I think they've come over here," Tom e-mailed me, noting a 20% rise in viewers for his cable networks in October. "Between `Stripperella', Jessica Simpson and the return of Tawny Kitaen on `I Love the `80s', we can't beat `em off with a stick."

There you have it, CBS. The lost men are hiding in your little brother's bedroom.

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