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Testosterone tuneout has nets fretting

Sweeps may shed light on missing males

So what does it take to lure young men away from the Internet, their DVDs, videogames and Maxim mags long enough to watch broadcast television again?

We may start to find out tonight as the November ratings sweep gets under way.

Much has been made about the dearth of new hits amid a slow start for the broadcast networks this fall, and the sharpest audience dropoff has been among adults under 35 — especially men.

Here are some other factors that point to programming on the broadcast nets as the reason young men are staying away from television:

  • Fox finds femmes: When the network of “The Simpsons” and “Married With Children” finds its most recent successes with femme fave “American Idol” and sudser “The OC,” you know things are changing.

This directional programming shift is partly the result of Fox’s attempt to broaden its audience, but it also happens to be what the network is now doing best.

  • What’s not on… Last season at this time, five programs — Fox’s “Firefly,” “Fastlane” and “John Doe,” the WB’s “Birds of Prey” and HBO’s “The Sopranos” — derived their largest share of audience from men 18-34. None of them is on this fall.

Neither are other shows that drew balanced auds but skewed more male than their nets’ typical shows: CBS’ “Amazing Race” and UPN’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

All of this adds up to testosterone tune-out, especially when you consider…

  • What is on… There’s no denying that the nets haven’t lit any fireworks with their new programs, but among the few shows that have actually worked well enough to improve their timeslot vs. a year ago are “Joan of Arcadia,” “Eve,” “Hope & Faith” and “Cold Case.”

If there’s anything that keeps men away from a show more than one with a female lead, it’s one with a female lead whose name is in the title.

  • Why it’s not on: Shows designed to appeal to young men are rarely broad enough hits for a network to keep on the air. That’s why shows like “Fastlane,” which would have been deemed a success if judged solely by its men 18-34 rating, isn’t back for a sophomore season.

But it’s also why cable has held up better in these men 18-34 comparisons.

If a show on cable skews heavily male and draws 1 or 2 million viewers overall (think Spike’s “Joe Schmo” or ESPN’s “Playmakers”), its network is ecstatic; at a broadcast net, it would be time to consider cancellation.

Cable is also able to attract men more easily than its broadcast counterparts by pushing the envelope with shows like FX’s “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck” — both of which are appointment viewing for young men, and at the expense of a show like ABC’s “NYPD Blue.”

9% dropoff

TV usage for the opening month of the season was down among men 18-34 by 9% in primetime, according to Nielsen Media Research, with broadcast and premium cable accounting for the bulk of the tune-out and basic cable holding steady.

Dropoff has alarmed the broadcast nets, which stand to lose substantial coin if this lucrative segment of the audience continues to stay away.

Nielsen issued a press release this week stating that, in response to client queries, it had checked all methodologies of collecting ratings data. It found “no systemic errors,” and even adjustments in sample size or new weighting based on population changes couldn’t account for such declines.

(Although what’s wrong with increasing the sample sizes, especially for such a narrow, vital demo as 18-34?)

Nielsen also points out that videogame usage is up in primetime and that DVD sales are on the rise, and plans to report further on both of these trends.

Some industry insiders still aren’t buying it, refusing to believe that a key audience segment — men 18-34 account for a good-sized chunk of the 18-49 demo that commands the highest advertising rates on Madison Avenue — has cut back on tube time so suddenly.

But it hasn’t been so sudden.

Over the last three seasons, the Nielsen ratings category that has exhibited the sharpest declines in broadcast viewing has been male teens (defined by Nielsen as 12-17). From the 2000-01 season to the present, the broadcast net’s share of this audience has gone from 53 to just 43.

And as the babies of the baby boomers move into adulthood, there has been such a surge in the numbers of persons 18-24 over the last two years that this segment now roughly matches in size the wider 25-34 breakout.

As a result, the 18-34 demo is weighted more heavily than ever toward those just stepping out of the Clearasil set.

What we are probably also witnessing is that young viewers, unlike their parents, are less willing to settle for programming that doesn’t appeal to them. If they can’t find something they like, they’re more likely to turn off the television altogether than to keep flipping buttons on the remote until they do.

Still, young males have remained loyal to some of their faves: NBC’s “Fear Factor” and Comedy Central’s “South Park” have both started their seasons with gains among young men, while Fox’s coverage of post-season baseball, which drew 28% more viewers than a year ago, spiked an even larger 37% in men 18-34.

Whether it means more reality or action shows — or even poker tournaments, the latest craze to hit cable — it’s time for the broadcast nets to start thinking outside the box if they wantto reclaim some of the lost lads.

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