Nielsen Media Research is still under fire from the big US TV networks over an apparent decline in the number of young male viewers.

As reported last week [WAMN: 30-Oct-03], the two sides have clashed over Nielsen's audience figures, which show a large drop in the number of 18 to 34-year old males watching the broadcast networks. Following complaints from the TV firms, the research giant checked its data and confirmed that this demographic's prime-time viewing last month was 8% to 12% down year-on-year.

Network executives, doubtless alarmed at 'losing' such an advertiser-friendly group, have questioned the accuracy of the figures, and the topic remains a sore one judging by comments made at a breakfast organised this week by the International Radio & Television Society Foundation.

Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, accepted that part of the fall-off can be explained by the fact that some of his network's new shows "sucked".

However, he questions the decline in audiences of already popular programming. "Surely people didn't all suddenly stop watching established shows like Friends, Will & Grace, Everybody Loves Raymond, Malcolm in the Middle, My Wife & Kids at the same time," he said.

Zucker's comments were echoed by WB Entertainment president Jordan Levin. "You can't account for the fact that every show that had strong audiences is down in every half hour," he argued. "It's hard to believe."

Both Zucker and Levin went on to suggest there was something suspicious in the steady rise in young male viewers reported since Nielsen's figures were first questioned nearly a month ago.

However, their claims that the problem has been "miraculously" fixing itself are undermined by the latest Nielsen data. On Thursday last week – the first day of the November 'sweeps', when ratings are used to fix ad rates – young male viewers were down just 1% on last year. But on Friday the decline was 21%, then 13% on Saturday, 9% on Sunday and 19% on Monday – giving a five-night average drop of 12.6%.

The mystery of the missing males is made more perplexing by the fact that cable TV has not seen a significant decline in viewing by young men, and there are no falls on the networks at other times of the day.

Nielsen argues that TV viewing among the young male demographic has been declining for years as the internet, video games and DVDs have grown in popularity. These claims are supported by new research from comScore Media Metrix, which found that 18 to 34-year-old men spent 17% more time online in September than the average surfer.

However, some have put forward a more simple theory as to why the drop in young male audiences is so large this year: networks are simply running more shows aimed at women and older viewers.

Data sourced from: multiple sources; additional content by WARC staff