NBC claims to have an answer to the puzzle vexing stateside TV executives – the mysterious decline in network viewing by young men.

Along with other broadcast networks, General Electric-owned NBC has recently seen an unexpectedly large fall in its young male audience as measured by Nielsen Media Research [WAMN: 30-Oct-03]. With millions of dollars in ratings-linked ad revenues at stake, the networks have questioned Nielsen's data. The research giant, however, insists there has been an 11% slump in overall viewing among 18 to 34-year-old men since the season began in September.

Now NBC claims to have an explanation. The problem, it argues, does indeed lie with the Nielsen data, and chiefly in recent changes to the research group's sample.

Nielsen has been recruiting more Hispanic households to its sample since the spring, roughly the same time as the decline in young male viewing was first noticed. NBC research president Alan Wurtzel claims the two are linked.

Many young men in these newly added households, he argues, may have been failing to follow the precise procedures of the survey, which requires viewers to log in regularly using a special remote control. Nielsen may therefore have counted their participation when it had not in fact taken place, skewing the overall figures.

In support of his theory, Wurtzel points out that average daily viewing among 18 to 34-year-old Hispanic males totalled 47 minutes over the first two weeks of the current season, down from 60 minutes in the same period last year. In contrast, average daily viewing among all men in this age group slipped by a mere two minutes over the same period to a total of 54 minutes.

Wurtzel admits that his findings are not "a smoking gun that explains everything," but he is surprised that Nielsen did not spot it before NBC. The research group has offered a number of theories for the decline, including the rise of alternative attractions (such as the web and DVDs) and the departure of many young men to Iraq.

Wurtzel also argues the Hispanic explanation undermines claims that young men have stopped watching simply because the networks are running more female-friendly programming this year.

However, Nielsen research chief Paul Donato insists NBC is mistaken. He argues the network should not have used figures from the first two weeks of the season (to which Wurtzel retorted that they were the only figures Nielsen had given to him) and denies that the Hispanic households had a significant effect.

"I do not want to dismiss this as not having any impact,'' he said. "But it's absolutely wrong to suggest this is driving the falloff. It is one of five or six different things we are providing our clients as an explanation."

Nielsen plans to release a full analysis within two weeks.

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff