Networks compete with videogames for male audiences

The television industry went into panic mode a decade ago as executives realized young men were tuning out in droves and turning to videogames for much of their entertainment.

The networks have reason to worry again.

More 18-to-34-year-old men — the lucrative audience advertisers want to reach — will be glued to their videogame consoles again this fall as a lineup of tentpole titles target hardcore gamers.

Much of the hype has surrounded the October and November launches of “Halo 4,” “Assassin’s Creed III” and “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.” All are expected to break sales records.

But a slew of other games will clamor for the attention of the young male demo as well, including the next installments of popular franchises “Borderlands,” “Dead Space,” “Devil May Cry,’ “Far Cry,” “FIFA 13,” “Gears of War,” “Hitman,” “Madden,” “Medal of Honor,” “Resident Evil,” “Splinter Cell,” and newcomers like superhero mashup “Injustice: Gods Among Us,” apocalyptic actioner “The Last of Us,” and cyber thriller “Watch Dogs,” all of which start bowing in the fall and continue launching well into next summer.

These games aren’t short, requiring tens of hours to complete. And developers are eager to keep gamers playing, updating the titles with new downloadable levels to prevent them from winding up on the discount shelves at retailers like GameStop.

Publishers are expected to back their new releases with pricey marketing campaigns, with many boasting budgets that would rival a summer movie tentpole release. Those are surely going to steal attention away from expensive launch efforts planned by the major broadcast networks around their new shows.

Publishers hyped the titles at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo, in Los Angeles, where dudes clearly ruled, as presentations unveiled action-packed footage from forthcoming releases heavy on gunfire, explosions, bloody maimings and general mayhem. Even Nintendo made sure to keep men in mind as it paired its cute “Pikmin 3″ with gory “ZombiU” while promoting its new Wii U console, out this fall.

This marks a significant shift from previous years when publishers focused on family friendly fare to capitalize on the success of Nintendo’s Wii, which revolutionized the casual games biz six years ago.

But the focus back on the alpha-gamer makes sense.

Young men buy the most games, and the industry is in dire need to launch big-sellers in a year that’s suffered from back-to-back monthly sales declines. Last year, the games biz earned $25 billion in revenue, according to industry tracker NPD Group. Sales of game software for various platforms and downloadable content generated $16.6 billion.

While TV is still America’s No. 1 pastime, broadcasters essentially had already given up on the younger male demo over the years. With 49% of all American homes owning a videogame console, according to the trade group Entertainment Software Assn., and many of those owning an average of two, 18-to-34-year-old males comprise less of the networks’ audience than any of the other quadrants (excluding sports broadcasts, especially football).

And TV viewership among this group continues to decline, though not at as rapid a rate: males 18-34 account for approximately 30.5% of all viewers during primetime hours, down 3% from 2001, while M12-17 is off 4% to 26.5%, according to Nielsen.

Even when DVR usage is factored in, Nielsen found that adults age 25 to 34 watched about four and a half hours of TV in the third quarter of 2011, about nine minutes less than in 2010. Viewers age 12 to 17 also watched nine fewer minutes a day. Those age 18 to 24 watched six fewer minutes.

The top shows on the major networks — series like “American Idol,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Once Upon a Time” — are viewed mostly by women.

That’s not likely to change this fall, as new shows like “The Carrie Diaries,” “Infamous,” “Beauty and the Beast” “Elementary,” “Nashville,” “The Mob Doctor” and “The Mindy Project” again target women.

High-profile attempts to connect with a more male-skewing audience with shows like “Terra Nova,” “Flash Forward,” “The Event” and “V,” didn’t catch on. The top five shows among men last season were “Sunday Night Football” on NBC; Fox’s “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons”; ABC’s “Modern Family”; and “American Dad,” also on Fox.

Cable channels are still able to lure men to shows like AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” but those numbers crest during October and April, and in far smaller numbers than broadcasters were once able to reach.

That doesn’t mean the broadcasters won’t try to lure guys back.

The CW has superhero show “Arrow,” based on DC Comics’ Green Arrow character, while NBC features the Jon Favreau-helmed apocalyptic drama “Revolution”; and ABC will set sail with submarine thriller “Last Resort.”

Still, the demo will be a tough nut to crack for broadcasters, considering the average gamer is 30 years old, according to the Entertainment Software Assn., a steep decline from the average age of 37, which the trade org announced last year. An estimated 68% of gamers are 18 or older.

Because of that, broadcasters and other networks, as well as most content owners, have been making sure they get their shows on the devices men are powering up.

The Super Bowl, for example, aired online for the first time this year, luring 2.1 million viewers to the live stream.

Videogame consoles — whether it’s Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Sony’s PlayStation 3 or Nintendo’s Wii and soon the Wii U — have quickly evolved into a hub for films and TV shows. All of the devices now offer apps that connect to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Walmart’s Vudu, Best Buy’s CinemaNow, HBO and Epix.

In fact, Microsoft claims more than 35 content partners on Xbox, having added Paramount, Nickelodeon, Univision, the National Basketball Assn. and the National Hockey League this month.

The onslaught of content deals essentially started in 2008, when the Xbox 360 added Netflix to its Xbox Live service. Thanks to consoles, Netflix’s online service has grown to more than 23 million streaming video customers in the U.S., watching mostly during primetime.

Microsoft says more than 40 million people pay to use the Xbox Live online service, which grants access to TV programming. Comparably, PlayStation 3 claims more than 51 million.

As game consoles evolve into a platform for all forms of entertainment, and become the go-to device to watch more TV shows, networks can’t make up the loss of ad revenue through streaming.

Ironically, broadcasters will benefit from the boost in ad dollars publishers spend to promote the launch of their new games — especially as Activision, with “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2,” battles Microsoft and its “Halo 4″ for the biggest game launch this fall. Microsoft’s global launch effort for “Halo 4″ is expected to cost close to $100 million.

Still, if networks didn’t have enough to worry about, videogame companies stress that they’re not just focusing on men.

“Core gamers have always been, and will always be, a critical part of our DNA at Xbox,” says Ryan James, a Microsoft spokesman. “We’re also committed to deliver content for broader audiences, as well,” he adds, citing “Nike+ Kinect Training,” games like “Wreckateer,” “Dance Central 3,” and new TV, movies and music games as examples of how the company is aiming to appeal to all types of players and audiences.

Sony introduced its Wonderbook at E3, an augmented reality pad that comes in the form of a bound book and uses PlayStation’s Eye camera and Move wands to bring stories to life for kids. J.K. Rowling’s “Book of Spells” will be a launch title, pulling youngsters away from traditional kids TV shows — the way Activision’s “Skylanders” toy-and-game franchise created a new opportunity for gamemakers.

And Tony Key, senior VP of sales and marketing of Ubisoft, North America, notes that while its E3 titles are targeted at more traditional gamers, he also singled out more family-friendly games like “Just Dance 4,” “Rayma
n: Legends” and “Marvel: Battle for Earth.”

In fact, 47% of all players are women, and adult women represent a greater portion of the game-playing population (30%) than boys age 17 or younger (18%).

“Games have evolved from a thing you buy to an experience enjoyed by a wide and diverse population everywhere, anytime, on any screen,” says Michael Gallagher, president and CEO of the ESA. “The creativity of our developers and publishers produces an ever-expanding variety of games in different formats and across all platforms.”

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