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Searching for the Elusive Male

It all started with television's version of a gnarly computer virus: a controversial white paper published by Nielsen Media Research in November 2003, in which the top ratings firm defended its "new and improved" methodology for measuring TV viewership. Nielsen's hotly contested numbers showed, among other things, a sharp decline of 8 percent in young male viewers in the 18-34 demographic during prime time on the broadcast networks and some pay-cable outlets like HBO. At the time, the research gurus at NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox raised plenty of suspicious eyebrows. Lifestyle changes, out-of-home viewing and new technologies such as videogames and the Internet, the thinking went, could seemingly account for only a small portion of the apparently precipitous drop. Besides, sports viewership was up slightly, and cable's numbers were flat.

But it was too late. The Nielsen report had already infected the conventional wisdom on young male viewers. And just like an evil Internet worm, what Nielsen's report didn't kill, it made stronger. Almost immediately, a new way of thinking set in among television execs. In broadcast, except for late night, the networks brazenly abandoned the coveted young male demo in a quest for a broader, less elusive swath of viewers. Some cable channels began courting the lads in an ultrafocused way nearly unimaginable just a few years earlier. And the growth of videogaming, podcasting and Internet TV showed that new technologies were more than just a fad.

Two years later, the programming landscape designed for the young male market is remarkably varied and vibrant. While most observers agree there is no single hot spot, there are certainly plenty of buying opportunities. "It's very fragmented," says Brad Adgate, senior vp/director of research at Horizon Media. "If you're going after men 18-34, you have to buy a lot of different tuning sources or different cable networks and some late night and some sports. And you have to look at other options outside of television that you may or may not want to address." Those options may include cinema advertising, advergaming, the Internet and so-called laddie mags such as Maxim, according to Adgate.

That said, a growing number of cable networks are rising to the challenge and experiencing an upswing in young male viewers with a variety of approaches, all of which acknowledge that while not a different species exactly, young men clearly are a breed apart when it comes to advertising-based media. "The 18-34 demo is one of those targets that has become very niche," says Adgate. "It's really difficult to expect a programmer or a broadcast network to go out and put on a show that is for everybody and expect men 18-34 is going to be part of that."

For some established cable outlets, programming for a demo known to be preternaturally fickle and thus difficult to market to was a challenge that simply evolved out of core programming values. Viacom-owned Comedy Central took note years ago that the edgy comic stylings of South Park, The Man Show and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart were a natural draw for young male viewers who saw themselves reflected in these shows' mocking yet telling-it-like-it-is points of view. In the second quarter of 2005, the network's audience was 64 percent male and 36 percent female, with a median viewer age of 30. "Young men, for us, have always been at the heart of our demographic," says Michelle Ganeless, executive vp, general manager at Comedy Central. "In a way, they're a barometer for us of what will be a successful show."

The network's ongoing success is proof that humor with both sophomoric and intelligent touches is raw bait for the young men it's trying to attract. "There's a way to be edgy and push the envelope without being offensive and without turning people off," says Ganeless. "We're not just edgy to be edgy; we're edgy to make a point."

Comedy Central's advertisers include gaming giants like X-Box, Playstation and Activision; DVD makers; fast-food kingpins such as McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell; and youth-oriented beverage brands like Sierra Mist. Indeed, the rapid-fire delivery of comic talents such as Jon Stewart, Dave Chappelle and David Spade—who is hosting The Showbiz Show, a new Daily Show-style entertainment program starting Sept. 15—appear to play into a compelling ad strategy that keeps viewers glued to their sets in anticipation of the next gag.

Three years ago, the network began broadcasting the legendary roasts from the Friar's Club, the exclusive club for comedians. They have become a reliable franchise. "The roasts are a series of one-liners, it's one after another, and you don't want to miss it, so you're watching more closely," says Jeff Lucas, Comedy Central's head of ad sales. "So when that commercial break comes, you're already tuned in." On Aug. 14, Pamela Anderson's roast attracted 4.3 million viewers, making it the No. 1 rated show on cable in the 10 p.m. Sunday slot for adults 18-49, according to Nielsen. A decidedly sophomoric interest in the jokes that were too dirty to broadcast has provided an unforeseen bonus: Comedy Central has plans for a DVD release of the unexpurgated roast.

Turner Networks' Cartoon Network carved out a new late-night programming block targeted to young men in 2001 called Adult Swim after watching viewers glom to reruns of shows like Space Ghost and Family Guy, a Fox network also-ran with a small but cultish following (the show's now back on Fox after DVD sales went through the roof). Cartoon Network began mostly as a repository for the Hanna-Barbera catalog acquired by Ted Turner in 1994—and a viewing option primarily conceived for children. But Mike Lazzo, the creator of and senior vp in charge of Adult Swim, says his "brainstorm" to program for young men was really a no-brainer. "When we got ratings in, we were shocked to discover that a third of the viewers were adults," says Lazzo. "It wasn't that hard to figure out. I mean, at that time I was in my early 30s and I still watched cartoons. I think that people that grew up with cartoons—a certain type of person, let's put it that way—continue to watch cartoons." While the next 10 years were devoted to programming for the other two-thirds, kids, in 2001, Cartoon's marketing department gave the go-ahead to start acquiring programming for young adults. "Kids will watch for great color and movement—the animation per se," says Lazzo. "Adults will almost never watch for that. They want dialogue, they want writing."

Sports programming, traditionally a draw for men of all ages, has been given a new twist by some channels looking to isolate young men. OLN, previously known as the Outdoor Life Network, spent its first nine years catering to outdoor enthusiasts—"people who do things," says OLN president Gavin Harvey, such as hunting, fishing, biking and mountain climbing. About a year ago, the network repositioned itself by adding new shows like The Gravity Games and changing the production approach on older properties such as Professional Bull Riders and Tour de France coverage. By taking an Olympics-style inclusive approach to this year's Tour de France—focusing on the rules, strategy and fitness regimes of riders—OLN was able to garner over a 2.0 rating on the last morning of the tour by "shifting it from an elite cycling event to a major July sporting event," Harvey says. Bull Riders has also been something of a surprise hit. Harvey feels the key is offering hype-weary Gen Xers and Gen Ys something they haven't seen before. "OLN offers a lot of things that have not been widely available. And this audience hasn't been assaulted with the opportunity to come, come, come and buy, buy, buy."

(OLN, backed by deep-pocket cable giant Comcast, recently took a more traditional step toward luring men by snagging cable rights to National Hockey League games, and is said to be interested in adding Major League Baseball and National Football League games if it can get the rights.)

Even ESPN, the sports network that claims the largest segment of the 18-34 male viewership on cable, has found a way to hone in on younger viewers with its popular X Games series, which features various action sports like surfing, skateboarding and BMX dirt biking. "Traditional sports are still where it's at, but X Games offers a different type of experience," says Artie Bulgrin, ESPN senior vp of research and sales development. "Young men view action sports in a different way than team sports. They're not so interested in rooting for somebody to win or lose. They view it as an exhibition, they kind of admire these athletes." Bulgrin says it doesn't hurt that many teens are biking, 'blading and 'boarding at home; X Games provides a personal connection for guys who may not be football or basketball junkies but inhabit active lives nonetheless.

When Viacom's TNN decided in 2003 to rename itself Spike TV, the young male demo hit a new watermark. Spike was one of the first open grabs for this newly identified market. "There were three networks for women, Lifetime, Oxygen and We, and there was no network for guys," says Kevin Kay, Spike's senior vp for programming. "The opportunity was that if you could find the magic potion, then you could reach guys on a big, broad level."

Though TNN was already 60 percent male and 40 percent female, the challenges were formidable. For one, there weren't that many network shows available that appealed directly to men. Then there was the notion that young men have shorter attention spans than most viewers. After researching the dilemma, Spike summed up the solution in one word: action. Two Spike originals—MXC, a compendium of hazardous games and stunts filmed in Japan, and The Ultimate Fighter, a reality series chronicling a brutal sport that combines professional wrestling and martial arts—have done very well. "Guys just want to come home and watch television to relax," says Kay. "They don't want to think that deep—they don't want to see shows about complicated relationships."

Combined with classic guy movies like The Godfather series and anything with Jean-Claude Van Damme, as well as off-network hits like CSI, Spike found a mix that helped make it the No. 1 network with men 18-34 in prime time among ad-supported cable networks this past April. Spike's biggest problem now is developing more suitable programming. "The networks aren't making much stuff for guys," says Kay. "So we're going to have to get more originals faster." One possible route: video-game-based programming. This year, Spike broadcast the Video Game Awards for the first time and anticipates developing more shows about young men's other favorite pastime.

Increasingly, videogames themselves and other new digital media platforms are proving a viable resource for advertisers eager to reach young men. In November 2004, Nielsen reported that men 18-34 were spending 14 hours a week playing videogames and only 12 hours a week watching TV. While still a very small percentage of the overall audience, these new outlets offer more accurate ways of targeting smaller, more refined segments of the 18-34 demo. "It's harder to reach a mass audience anymore," says Cory Treffiletti, senior vp and managing director at Carat Interactive in San Francisco. "And it's even more difficult to say where are men 18 to 34 going, because there are a lot of subsegments within men 18 to 34 and how they are utilizing media. So what we do is try to figure out behavioral patterns or even subsegments within those demographics." Using available marketing data from services such as Claritas as well as proprietary information, Carat Interactive hones in on various subsegments and tries to create a matrix of advertising options custom-fit to that specific niche. An 18-year-old male living in Wisconsin who is into hip-hop and car racing, for example, is going to have a different mentality than an 18-year-old male in L.A. who is maybe into low-rider bikes and country music. The good news is, both young men likely frequent the Internet, own cell phones and have at least a passing interest in videogames. From there, it's simply a matter of mapping out individual preferences.

While video-on-demand technology has been part of basic cable packages for a while, Rainbow Media, a division of Cablevision, has taken the format a step further with Mag Rack and Sportskool, two free basic-cable VOD services that together reach about 15 million homes and target two classic young male categories: early adopters and geeky hobbyists. "Technology has developed to the point that people want it now and they want it the way they want it, and they want it when they want it," says Dan Ronayne, Rainbow's senior vp and general manager. The four-year-old Mag Rack features Guitar Xpress, a video how-to guide for wanna-be rock stars, and 24seven Gamer, a videogaming news program. Sportskool highlights athletic instruction with big names like Chicago Cubs shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and ski racer Bode Miller. Last spring Rainbow crafted a 10-minute VOD lifestyle programming block for Details magazine that also incorporated two of their advertisers, Bombay Gin and John Paul Da'Mage jeans. "It was a great experience for the advertisers," says Ronayne, "because it was really branded integration."

The Seattle-based "advergaming" firm Wild Tangent has taken an entirely different approach by integrating branded content into existing videogames as well as custom-published videogames, a medium it pioneered in which major advertisers contract the gamemaker to create a complete branding environment. The company recently developed Mojo Master, a videogame in which players seduce cyberwomen, for Unilever's Axe line of men's grooming products. The game had a seven-figure budget but is available to consumers as a free download. "When we make a videogame for Nike for World Cup Soccer or Coke for their NCAA basketball sponsorship or a racing game for Chrysler, no one has to play that game," says Dave Madden, Wild Tangent's executive vp. Madden regards these branded games as preferable to simply dropping banner ads and other advertising into pre-existing games, a tactic that frequently alienates the consumers the client hopes to appeal to. "They have to opt in and invite themselves to play," he says. Therefore, the games must be of a high quality. "Ideally it doesn't even feel like you're being marketed to. You're just playing a really fun videogame."

Carat Interactive's Treffiletti says the main reason so many young men are spending more and more time online and with other emerging technologies is not because they are necessarily being under-served on TV, but because they are interested in any medium that caters to their own interests as specifically as possible. "They're going to places where the information is even tighter within their mind-set, it's even closer to what they're exactly looking for," he says, "whether that's cable or print or online." Online is a big draw, Treffiletti adds, "just because of the sheer volume of information there that's of relative interest to them."

MTV, possibly the most established cable property devoted to young viewers, has made it a priority to cater to the widely varied and constantly changing interests of tech-savvy young men who love music along with all sorts of other cool trends. MTV Networks' entertainment president Brian Graden says the network markets to both young men and women, but more and more tries to infuse certain shows with "an attitude that may play more male but doesn't alienate female viewers." Graden points to shows such as Punk'd, Viva la Bam and Pimp My Ride as successful forays into this strategy. He adds that they are "authentic to the culture in a really organic way."

No longer predominantly a showcase for music videos, MTV now skews female with the success of reality shows like Laguna Beach and The Real World. In response, the network repositioned MTV2 earlier this year from an alternative music video outlet to a male-oriented stepbrother to the main MTV brand. That means more hip-hop music, more Cribs episodes featuring athletes and alternative comedy shows like Celebrity Deathmatch. An early hit, Video Mods, combines music videos with characters and other elements from videogames, according to MTV2's general manager, David Cohn.

Taking the mantra of specificity even further, MTV recently established MTV Overdrive, a broadband online video channel where viewers can access abbreviated versions of their favorite shows whenever they want. To publicize it, the network put last month's entire Video Music Awards on Overdrive immediately after it was broadcast live on MTV. By counting hits on the Web site, the network has what amounts to a programming farm team, a data-rich training ground for up-and-coming talent. "The way we're viewing the experience in the future is that it's almost a seamless viewing experience among all of our platforms," says Graden, "and people can sort of jump in and out of various platforms, or even multitask and experience more than one at the same time, whether that's via wireless, phone, MTV.com, Overdrive, et cetera." Popular music will essentially serve as the connective tissue within a larger MTV-branded multimedia universe.

More choice, more specialization, more programming freedom—it's a trend that's popping up everywhere for young men. Increasingly specialized cable channels, a wider variety of music choices on satellite radio, podcasting (which allows listening to specialized radio programming on your own schedule) are all signs that the shift has taken hold. Not that the broadcast networks are totally giving up on these unruly creatures. The latest push for fall? Shows on supernatural topics, such as CBS' Ghost Whisperer starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. Says Horizon's Adgate, "That's kind of an attempt to get men 18-34 watching a show that women 35-49 will watch too."

 

Alec Foge, Mediaweek. September 05, 2005

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