Network TV finds bait to lure men

Technology helps draw the young

October 21, 2006|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,sun television critic

Pointing to the early success of two new series - CBS' Jericho and NBC's Heroes - network and cable executives say they have in their sights what is considered the most elusive TV audience segment:

Young adult males.

Armed this fall with a technological arsenal that includes On Demand downloads and online video streams, television executives say for the first time they are reaching young men between 18 and 34 years of age, the demographic group considered hardest to reach and most desired by TV advertisers.

"Jericho is the most downloaded show on CBS, and the key audience is mostly young men," said George Schweitzer, president of marketing for CBS, a network whose prime-time audience is 70 percent women ages 35 or older.

"We see this with Heroes on NBC as well," he said. "Prior to their debut, the online previews for the two series generated lots of chatter in comic book sites and sci-fi blogs, areas populated by young men - the same group that most heavily uses the new technology."

Men in general watch 50 fewer minutes of television per day than women, according to Nielsen Media Research. In particular, prime-time (8 to 11 p.m.) network audiences are almost two-thirds female.

Young men 18 to 34, whose buying habits have yet to be formed, watch less TV than any other adult group. They typically choose other after-work activities, such as video games and playing sports, said University of Maryland media economist and historian Douglas Gomery.

Subsequently, young adult males are the networks' best hope for growth - and an advertiser's dream.

But the Internet and electronic devices such as iPods and cell phones offer a highway to, if not the hearts of young men, then at least their leisure pursuits. And networks and cable channels for the first time this fall offered an array of top new programs to technically savvy viewers before the shows premiered on air.

They included Jericho, a CBS drama about life after nuclear attack; Heroes, an NBC serial about twenty-somethings with extraordinary powers; and Shark, a CBS legal series starring James Woods. The move effectively shattered the 50-year-old tradition of introducing new shows during an official fall season "premiere week."

"Suddenly new technology brings network programmers and young men face to face online," said Gomery.

"It's still experimental, and the jury's still out on whether new technology is finally going to solve the riddle of bringing young men to prime-time television," he said. "But the early results this fall are promising."

Indeed at NBC Universal, Chairman Bob Wright announced the layoff of 700 employees this week - and explained the move as an effort to shift resources from old to new media. "Success in this business means quickly adjusting to and anticipating change," Wright said in a statement.

Although it is the lowest-rated network, NBC's online strategies have been fruitful. This week, NBC Rewind at netted more than 3 million requests for free video streams of network series. Supported by ads, the online initiative - essentially NBC's answer to HBO's On Demand service - allows viewers to replay episodes at their own convenience.

Though only in its second week, the service is already network television's most popular, according to Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC Universal cable entertainment and digital content. In addition to the replays, after each Heroes episode, the network's Web site publishes an online graphic novel in which the story is continued.

Television executives at every other network and cable channel also plan to expand distribution of new and existing TV series by the Internet, cell phones, iPods and other electronic devices used by plugged-in consumers.

And HBO broke new ground last month when it offered subscribers, through its On Demand service, the chance to view episodes of The Wire, a Baltimore-based drama, six days before they were scheduled to air.

For the most part, the experiment is paying off: Each week the On Demand audience for the Peabody-award winning drama has grown. And the series' regular Sunday-night audience is up 13 percent over last year.

"We're pretty happy with that growth, knowing that with HBO On Demand, the dominant users are young," said Dave Baldwin, executive vice president for program planning at HBO.

"We know they're a tech-savvy bunch. We know that they schedule their own time. And we know they're the highest users of the new technology. Therefore, when we come up with something like we did for The Wire, premiering each episode a week early, although we have only preliminary information, it seems like it has been a pretty successful idea."

There have been unintended consequences, as there always are when media and new technology mate. Online chat sites devoted to The Wire have been troubled this fall by On Demand users posting "spoilers" - plot developments and story line details - in advance of the Sunday-night showings of The Wire.

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