Few Viewers and Network Executives Scratch Their Heads
By BILL CARTER
Published: October 22, 2003
S the ratings have rolled in for the first three weeks of the new television season, one question has dominated the conversations inside the industry's executive suites: what the heck is going on?
Network executives are baffled by a season unlike any seen before. Returning hit shows like "Friends" and "E.R." are losing significant numbers of viewers from previous years. New shows have performed far worse than almost anyone expected, a result capped off Monday night when the Fox network started two shows that had received huge promotional pushes during the baseball playoffs, "The Next Joe Millionaire" and "Skin," and they posted crushingly disappointing numbers. And men between 18 and 24 are apparently deserting television in droves. So far this year nearly 20 percent fewer men in that advertiser-friendly demographic are watching television during prime time than during the same period last year.
The drop-off in these viewing figures tabulated by Nielsen Media Research is inexplicable to industry executives. "Frankly what we're seeing strains credulity," said Alan Wurtzel, the president of research for NBC.
Executives are demanding an explanation from Nielsen for these discrepancies, which, if they continue, could leave the networks on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in so-called make-goods, free commercials to make up for falling short of guarantees to advertisers. A permanent decline in television viewership could jeopardize the broadcast and cable networks' advertising bonanza, which reached a record $15 billion in national advertising commitments for this season.
Jack Loftus, the corporate spokesman for Nielsen, said the ratings company had assiduously checked its data and was confident the numbers were accurate. He said that while the drop in young men watching television was highly unusual, it was real. Mr. Loftus said Nielsen was examining several possibilities to explain the decline, including some unexpectedly high use of video games and DVD players by the young men now absent from television, and even the possibility that a certain number of the young men who are supposed to be in the sample may have been called to duty in Iraq by the National Guard.
Mr. Loftus said another factor might be the improvement in Nielsen's techniques for selecting viewers, so that some people who signed up might not necessarily be heavy television viewers, where earlier the Nielsen sample was dominated by those who watched a lot of television.
Steve Sternberg, a research executive in the advertising industry as senior vice president for Magna Global USA, said the situation "is certainly a mystery." But he said that the make-good issue would probably not become acute for a while. "Everybody at this point is saying let's see what happens when baseball gets finished," Mr. Sternberg said.
Network executives said none of Nielsen's explanations so far could explain the suddenness of the viewing drop-off and its concentration in just one demographic group.
"You can't explain a 12 percent decline in men 18 to 34 or close to 20 percent in men 18 to 24 by saying they're playing a lot more video games," said David F. Poltrack, the executive vice president for research at CBS.
He added, "The fact that it's concentrated in one small age group makes it worse, and even more likely that it's an aberration."
Mr. Wurtzel had another suspicion, having to do with who is chosen for the Nielsen sample. He said that Nielsen tends to skip homes where the equipment may be extremely complicated to wire, and that with more homes now adding digital boxes and satellite dishes, those homes might be skipped more often, meaning heavy viewers of television are being systematically excluded.
A Nielsen executive said the skipping over of such homes was rare.
One possible factor is more basic, Mr. Sternberg said — the quality of the new shows. "I've always noticed that we never hear anybody talking about the programming." He noted that the networks, which still tend to drive the overall viewing figures, have suffered though a grim start to their new prime-time season. "What has anybody put on that's going to appeal to young men?" Mr. Sternberg asked.
The answer was not much, even before the Fox network's belly-flop Monday night. Fox has been on the programming sidelines most of the fall because of its coverage of postseason baseball.
Until Fox really started to compete, several executives said last week, the question of a fall-off in young male viewers could not be fairly assessed because Fox is the network that most appeals to that group.
But that group did not show up on Monday for Fox — and neither did most anyone else. The poor performance of "Joe Millionaire" could not be attributed to the shortfall in young men because all categories of viewers that once liked it seem to have stayed away.
"Joe Millionaire," whose finale was the most-watched entertainment show last season, came back using a group of foreign women as the butt of the joke that the man they are trying to land is not a millionaire.
The show's ratings were the fraud this time. "Joe Millionaire" attracted only 6.8 million viewers Monday night. The debut episode last year drew 18.6 million viewers. Its finale reached 40 million viewers.
That performance hurt the drama that followed it, "Skin," a Romeo-and-Juliet story set against the backdrop of the adult entertainment industry. It drew only 6.3 million viewers, far behind all its network competition. Fox's performance Monday night prompted a pep talk to the staff from Sandy Grushow, the chairman of Fox Entertainment.
Gail Berman, the president of Fox Entertainment, acknowledged that the network was disappointed, though she said "Joe Millionaire" might grow as it goes along. She also pledged to run "Skin" in other time periods to build an audience for it.
But the numbers were sobering, she conceded. "We've now experienced a taste of what our competitors have been through this fall," Ms. Berman said.
Mr. Sternberg summed up the state of television at the moment: "No one knows what's going on.