What if the networks threw a party and the cool kids never came?
Or what if the networks hosted a pretty packed party, but the official photographer (let's call him Mr. Nielsen) brought just two rolls of film and then snapped only a few blurry pictures of Grandpa Morty doing the Mashed Potato in the corner?
That's the megamillion-dollar mystery of the 2003-04 TV season: According to Nielsen Media Research, a bunch of young men are missing. Seven weeks into the fall schedule, the networks are suffering double-digit percentage declines among 18-to 34-year-olds. (The lone gainer, Fox, was saved by an unusually high-rated baseball postseason.) The Big Six still haven't found a true breakout hit: High-profile hopefuls like NBC's Coupling (the next Friends!), Fox's Skin (porn!) and The WB's Tarzan (umm...Tarzan!) fizzled, while the biggest new series, CBS' Two and a Half Men, holds 84 percent of Everybody Loves Raymond's audience and about 4 percent of its buzz. Even more disconcerting, young viewers have deserted veterans from ER to Raymond to 24 to 7th Heaven to Friends (though it still remains TV's No. 1 comedy).
Why are younger people -- especially men -- less tuned in than in previous years? Every season is riddled with duds, but critics and execs seem to agree that this freshman class was not the brightest in recent memory. ''A lot of the new programming on the networks was not...standoutish,'' concedes NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker (who used the word sucked to describe the fall's new offerings at an industry panel several weeks ago). He also cites a bevy of estrogen-infused new shows. ''Television gets more women than men,'' he says. ''And when you put on shows that are called Miss Match, Joan of Arcadia, Hope & Faith, and Karen Sisco, you're going to clearly attract more women than not.''
But when Zucker and other execs see their returning shows bleeding younger viewers, they start pointing fingers. ''My instinct is to always find a degree of humility and say, 'It's something we're doing,' but I honestly don't believe that's the case,'' says The WB's co-CEO Jordan Levin. The problem, he claims, rests with Nielsen, a monopoly ratings service with whom the networks have endured a shaky relationship for decades. (In the late '90s, the networks even spent millions researching the viability of a rival service.) To improve its sample, Nielsen made a number of changes this year, including boosting the number of Hispanic households it measures. According to the company's data, young Hispanic men are watching significantly less TV than the overall average, which NBC thinks is partly responsible for the demo decline. In addition, the networks insist the firm doesn't accurately count TV-hungry young folks because they live in homes with TiVo, digital cable, and satellite -- systems that aren't very compatible with Nielsen's equipment.
Nielsen spokesperson Jack Loftus counters that the company has reexamined its number crunching and stands by it, adding that it's ''a top priority'' to explain the loss. Some theories: Young men are leaving the networks for the Internet, DVDs, and videogames. (''It didn't just happen one night that young men started discovering Internet sites and DVDs,'' responds Zucker.) ''I think there's a frustration there,'' Loftus says. ''But you can't just indict the whole system and say, 'Well, because my audience is down therefore Nielsen is wrong.''' And Nielsen does have its defenders. ''It's the programming,'' says Steve Sternberg, senior VP at Magna Global USA. ''If this was a Nielsen problem, it wouldn't just be affecting network television, it would be affecting cable as well.'' Indeed, while broadcast TV ratings among men 18 to 34 are down 12 percent, cable actually climbed 1 percent in the same demo.