The TV world is buzzing over how many young male viewers have ditched primetime broadcast shows — but ad-supported cable networks say they haven't taken a hit with that fickle demographic.
In fact, cable networks such as ESPN, FX, TBS Superstation, Comedy Central, Cartoon Network and Spike TV have enjoyed increases in viewing among men 18 to 34.
"They're not vanishing as far as we're concerned," said Glenn Enoch, ESPN's vice president of audience research, referring to the young-male demographic. "We've found them."
Added Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting System Inc., "There are no losses in evidence here on the cable-viewing side."
Still, cable-research officials — and their broadcast-network counterparts — want Nielsen Media Research to dig harder into why younger males are shunning primetime TV.
"It is a concern," Wakshlag said. "It's not good news to anybody."
Officials with the Big Four broadcast networks have been pointing an accusing finger at Nielsen, blaming ratings methodology for declines in young-male viewership this new fall season.
Nielsen responded last week by saying a preliminary analysis of what was happening with young males supports its methodology: It "found no systemic errors."
Nielsen insists men 18 to 34 are watching 8% to 12% less TV in primetime than last year, but adds "there is no evidence that young men have abruptly stopped watching television."
Increased video game and DVD usage account for part of the decline, Nielsen said, but it's continuing to investigate.
Cable-research officials said they were happy Nielsen has taken at least a preliminary look. But they want more of an explanation as to where all the young dudes have gone.
"Just because cable hasn't been affected by it the way broadcast has doesn't mean it's not of concern to us when viewing levels change," said Tim Brooks, executive vice president of research for Lifetime Entertainment Services.
Season-to-date, ad-supported cable's primetime national rating among men 18 to 34 is the same as last year, a 12.2, according to a Turner Entertainment Research analysis of Nielsen data.
Broadcast has taken a big hit. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox have seen ratings for that demographic drop to a 11.5 rating this year from 12.5 in 2002, Wakshlag said.
For the seven broadcast networks, their rating for men 18 to 34 has dropped to a 13.0 this year from a 14.7 last year.
"From the analysis we've done, all the viewing losses are on the broadcast side," Wakshlag said.
The season-to-date rating among men 18 to 34 for ad-supported cable is exactly the same, he said. But "it's only cable's gain in terms of share, it's not cable's gain in terms of raw deliveries. So we are concerned like all the broadcast networks about the loss of men 18-to-34 viewership."
The Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau did its own analysis of ratings data relating to young men this season and found — like Turner — that cable's viewership in that demographic was either flat or up slightly.
"Cable has held its own and not seen the deterioration," said Ira Sussman, the CAB's vice president of research.
The CAB blames the Big Four's lackluster new shows for driving young men away. "There is less good programming on the broadcast networks compared to last season for that demo," Sussman said.
Year-to-year, 22 of 48 basic cable networks have gained in viewership among men 18 to 34, according to Steve Leblang, senior vice president of strategic planning and research for FX Networks.
Along with FX and Spike TV, networks including Travel Channel, National Geographic Channel and Hallmark Channel, have seen gains in that demographic.
In October, ESPN and ESPN2 saw double-digit increases with men 18 to 34 in both primetime and total day, according to Enoch.
In a letter to clients, Nielsen said primetime viewing levels for 18-to-34-year-old men have declined for the past 10 years, with the exception of 2001 and 2002.
But young men are watching more TV on a total-day basis.
Nielsen also maintains that there has been an increase in video-game usage among men during primetime, and that increased DVD viewing might also be siphoning males from nightly TV broadcasts.
Nielsen analyzed the impact of its recent efforts this September to "weight," or adjust, data to better reflect the current TV universe and to add more young Hispanics — lighter TV viewers — to its national People Meter sample.
Weighting did account for 1.5 percentage points of the drop in young men, but Nielsen said it "found no significant causal relationships" to the vanishing-men issue.
Brooks gave Nielsen credit for "not stonewalling" the lost-male issue but said the ratings company's client letter "put a bit of a smiley face" on the situation.
"The networks are properly holding Nielsen's feet to the fire to investigate it," Brooks said. "Having said that, we don't have a smoking gun yet.
"The reasons that Nielsen gives so far are plausible, but even they say they haven't gotten completely to the bottom of it."
Ray Giacopelli, Comedy Central's vice president of ad-sales research, expressed concern about the impact Nielsen's new weighting had on viewership data. But he maintained that if the Big Four had better shows targeted to young men, those viewers would come to watch.
"If you look at the broadcasters' schedules, it's basically CSI and [Everybody Loves] Raymond clones, with the exception of Coupling," Giacopelli said. "There's nothing to drive that group [young men] in huge numbers to the screen. So broadcasters shouldn't jump and down when everything they put on the air is geared toward couples and women over 35."
Sussman also blamed weak shows: "We're doing our due diligence to be sure Nielsen is doing its thing right, and that it's not something buried in the numbers of the sample that is really pushing this. Right now, we don't think it is. I think the No. 1 issue we're seeing right now is programming."