Television loves a good mystery. The big one this fall is, Where have the young male viewers gone? While the prime-time audience has dropped overall, the falloff has been most drastic in the coveted 18-to-34-year-old male demographic: down 16% in prime time at ABC, 19% at CBS and 21% at NBC, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. What's the reason? Theories have ranged from an influx of Hispanic men in the sample (see below) to soldiers being shipped off to Iraq (don't bet on it). Here's a look at the most likely theories:
THEORY NO. 1 Bad programs. Bad, at least, if you want to attract young men. Testosterone-friendly shows from last season like Fox's Firefly and the WB's Birds of Prey are gone, and most of the shows that have had modest success this year (such as The O.C. and Joan of Arcadia) skew toward women. That leaves a big opening for cable. Channels like FX and ESPN are up in young male viewers. (See page 70.)
THEORY NO. 2 Outside distractions. It's not just cable. With DVDs, video games and the Internet, your average guy has a lot more to do these days than stare at a sitcom. While there's no proof yet that these activities are eating into TV time, it makes sense: 18-to-24-year-olds, who Nielsen says are driving the decline, are among the most voracious consumers of these media.
THEORY NO. 3 Bad sampling. The networks contend the drop is so dramatic that there must be problems with Nielsen's methodology. NBC research guru Alan Wurtzel has proposed a controversial explanation: the addition of more young Hispanic men to the sample this year (to reflect the population better) had the unintended effect of skewing the results, since Hispanic men, he claims, are less likely to push the buttons on their Nielsen meters. Nielsen stands by its numbers but is reviewing its methodology and expects to issue a report as early as this week. By that time, maybe we'll have some more theories. --By Jeanne McDowell and Kate Novack