In cable television, male bonding has a lot of value. Just ask the people who buy TV ad time. They’re accustomed to paying a premium to display their messages on cable networks that bring in big ratings with the “fellas.”
“It’s lucrative for cable networks that can attract this audience,” says Todd Gordon, senior vice president and managing partner at ad-buying agency Mediacom Communications Corp. “There are advertisers that are trying to reach young men, but there aren’t a lot of alternatives.”
Exactly how well cable networks attract males depends on how you look at the numbers, as the tables on page 36 make clear. Over 20 networks skew at least slightly male, but networks sporting some real hair on their chests — with 70% of their audiences of the male persuasion — number less than 10 when judging the 12 and over, 18-to-34 and 18-to-49 demographics. That’s according to Turner Broadcasting System Inc.’s analysis of Nielsen Media Research data for the “season to date” period of Sept. 20, 2004, to April 17, 2005, total day.
Sports Leads The Way
Not surprisingly, sports reigns supreme. ESPN, ESPNews and ESPN Classic top all three categories with the percentage of men in their audience makeup. But the folks behind the Adult Swim channel have been upbeat lately because the late-night block of edgy animation has become one of the hottest corners on cable TV for young men. Adult Swim was positioned as a separate, late-night channel, riding on the coattails of mother ship Cartoon Network early this year.
Nielsen didn’t start measuring Adult Swim until April, well after the start of the season. But its first measured weeks indicate that the network commands the largest audience of men 18-34, a daily average of 264,000 in that category, putting it ahead of every other basic-cable network, including ESPN — although the sports powerhouse still reigns supreme, in terms of sheer quantity of males, in the 18-to-49 and 12-plus rankings.
What is it about Adult Swim that makes it so successful? Sure it was born with a silver spoon in its mouth. Cartoon Network — and by extension Turner and Time Warner Inc. — make for a powerful family tree. But Cathy Rasenberger, a cable TV consultant who specializes in launching new networks, pinpoints something else. She notes Adult Swim’s ability to push creative bounds with its animation.
“There are complex themes,” Rasenberger says. “There’s action, with some violence … and sexy, cartoon girls.”
Males are responding to shows like Big O, where millionaire playboy Roger Smith protects the amnesia-plagued citizens of Paradigm City from evil-doers. There’s also Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which features the escapades of a milkshake, a meatball and an order of fries; futuristic Matt Groening series Futurama; and The Family Guy, the irreverent family comedy that got its start on broadcast network Fox.
Adult Swim’s breakout performance comes as major networks contend with broad shifts in TV-viewing habits. Nielsen research has shown that young adults are abandoning primetime TV. And men 18 to 34 — already considered elusive to TV advertisers — are leading the exodus.
Young men are “multi-taskers, and they’re hardly ever at home,” says Barbara Cipolla, marketing and business development director for Mediaedge:cia, another ad-buying agency.
Men that age tend to be more discretionary in their spending, Cipolla says. They’re early adopters. They like to indulge in new consumer choices, like opening-weekend movies, trendy technology and the latest soft drink or beer.
They also tend to be lighter viewers of television, points out Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting.
“Ad inventory with high concentrations of young men is hard to come by and, therefore, more expensive,” he says, lending some insight into why Turner decided to break out Adult Swim as a separate channel.
Cable channels not only have to compete with rival networks for male attention, they increasingly find themselves going head-to-head against high-tech TV devices.
“The DVD player has had a huge impact on viewing habits,” according to a Mediaedge:cia newsletter. In fact, “more than double” the number of men under 35 could be found watching a DVD — rather than ESPN — during primetime last year.
Lessons From Spike
The fact that male viewers are difficult to attract certainly hits home with Spike TV, which launched in 2003 with a mission to target young men.
Spike, billed as the “first network for men,” ranks No. 8 in terms of sheer quantity of 18-to-34 males. But it’s No.13 when judged by the percentage of viewers that are male, across the 12-plus and 18-to-49 categories in the season-to-date tables. And it’s No. 12 among the 18-to-34 set, where only 61.4% of its audience is male. That’s hardly a landslide victory for parent MTV Networks.
Showing just how important it is to tilt the focus more in the male direction, Spike announced a shakeup in top management in February. Doug Herzog, who helped create Comedy Central and currently serves as its president, added president of Spike to his responsibilities, replacing Albie Hecht, who headed the men’s channel since its inception.
So far, Spike’s highest ratings have come from pro wrestling. But the network will say goodbye to World Wrestling Entertainment this fall. Insiders at Spike say body-slamming shows like WWE’s Raw aren’t exactly pinning the TV world’s most elite advertisers. As a result, executives are trying to attract higher-income viewers.
The Ideal Spike Viewer
Kevin Kay, executive vice president of programming and production for Spike, can easily conjure up the ideal Spike viewer. According to Kay, he’s someone making a transition from frat-boy party life to young adulthood. “He’s probably a 32- or 33-year-old guy … lives in the suburb of major city and has an entrepreneurial spirit,” he says. “In a perfect world, he would someday be able to open his own sports bar. He may be single, or maybe relatively recently married — with possibly one or two kids.”
Herzog’s influence on the channel probably won’t be evident to any meaningful extent on-screen until the start of the next season. But he’s laying the groundwork. Spike announced in May that it was teaming up with an animation studio and the largest TV network in Japan to debut a five-episode series called Afro Samurai.
The show, which underscores the popularity of adult animation, features the voice of acclaimed Hollywood actor and producer Samuel L. Jackson.
Spike has learned the importance of animation in attracting younger males — possibly from Adult Swim, but certainly from animated shows on sister service Comedy Central (which ranks No. 5 among 18-to-34 male viewers). Comedy Central’s South Park is one of the top shows attracting 18-to-34 males, according to Nielsen’s analysis of the first four months of 2005 (see page 36). Spike has also been banking on automotive programming on the weekends and relies heavily on the crime drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation during the week.
It’s a safe bet that Herzog will make sure some form of sports is in the mix. “You really can’t have a men’s network without sports,” Kay says. “Guys like action, cars, video games, women … and guys like sports.”
It’s not just ESPN that’s making that abundantly clear; the Outdoor Life Network delivers one of the purest male audiences to be found on cable. Its viewer numbers may still be quite small, drawing a mere 9,000 males 18-to-34 in the season-to-date rankings for 18-to-34 year olds, but it ranks No. 5 in terms of its percentage of males: 75%.
Sports are certainly what two general-entertainment channels, Turner Network Television and TBS, use to pull in the men. In terms of sheer volume of men, TNT ranks near the top in all three demographics. But in all three, it ranks in the mid to high 30s when it comes to percentage of males, skewing more female overall. TNT is using a fair share of pro sports — including National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing and National Basketball Association coverage — to complement a lineup of one-hour dramas, including Law & Order, Charmed, Judging Amy and Angel.
A similar strategy is at play on Turner’s “very funny” network, TBS. It airs Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball games and college basketball contests to balance out series like Sex and the City, Seinfeld and Friends.
While younger men are highly desirable among networks and advertisers, some networks are in the market for more mature men, including cable news channels and The History Channel.
Fox News Channel may rank a distant No. 24 among male viewers 18 to 34, but in males 12-plus it ranks a respectable No. 4, right behind ESPN, Adult Swim and TNT. That’s a better score than it gets with women in the same demo, where it pulls in at No. 7.
Bill Shine, senior vice president of programming for the Fox News, says that the secret to its male success is the personalities of its mixed bag of hosts. “I think they’re all outstanding television personalities,” he says, naming network regulars like Bill O’Reilly, Greta Van Susteren and Shepard Smith.
Toms Grams, a media industry consultant, attributes the news channel’s popularity to its perceived philosophical bent. “Young men can be pretty opinionated and conservative,” says Grams, who compares Fox News’ style of journalism and commentary with pro wrestling.
Likewise, Rasenberger, who was surprised at the strength of the Fox News ranking, says the network “may have a younger twist to it.”
Another top performer in older male demos is The History Channel. The network doesn’t make it to the top 10 male viewer list in 18-to-34 breakouts, but is No. 10 among 18 to 49s, then makes it to a solid No. 6 in the 12-plus male viewer category. Almost 73% of its viewers are male, among the 12-plus crowd.
“We like to think we’re in a category all by ourselves,” says Dan Davids, president of History. “We kind of fill that unsatisfied need that men have in the way of historical programming.”
The 10-year-old network’s schedule of programs on wars and famous personalities from the past seems to be paying off of late. History has been enjoying its highest ratings ever, and in April, it unveiled a new schedule of marquee programs, specials and series.
Other channels that rely on factual programming also show clear evidence of male appeal. Among them is National Geographic Channel, which doesn’t crack the top 10 lists in terms of viewers, but does rank No. 9 in percentage of 12-plus males. Likewise, Discovery Channel is the eighth most popular channel among males 18 to 49, which make up almost 65% of its audience.
History tries to separate itself from the factual pack in distinct ways. “We try to select topics that we feel are known, but we try to bring a different perspective” says Davids, referring to recent shows with subjects that range from bloodshed in Rwanda to the salacious personal life of Benjamin Franklin.
That kind of programming isn’t likely to dislodge sports as the best way to capture the average male, but cable makes clear that there’s plenty of programming options for those on the prowl for a great male audience.