When networks executives got a look at the first two weeks of Nielsen data for the new TV season, the lyrics of a 1960s song must have come to mind: "Where have all the young men gone?"
There's been an 11.8% decline in TV viewing of any kind — broadcast, cable or DVR — among men in the 18- to 34-year-old age group. Viewers between 18 and 24 had an even steeper 16% drop, while women in the same range slipped 8.8%. By comparison, regular TV usage among viewers in the 55-plus age group grew 2.2%.
The numbers show that the launch of a heavily promoted fall season of new series and fresh episodes of popular favorites can no longer pull young viewers away from the video they watch on their gadgets. It means that networks must now take a deeper look at viewing numbers over a longer time frame before determining what's working and what needs to be axed.
"This is picking up where it left off last season," said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, which buys time for TV advertisers. "It seems that streaming video on demand, mobile devices and tablets have cut into television viewing. I don't think they are watching less content. I think they are watching it differently."
For younger viewers, television is content — but it no longer means sitting in front of a set. Watching what they want on their own time and often on something other than a conventional flat-screen television has become the norm. They are even spending less time playing back shows on DVRs.
That leaves broadcast executives in a quandary over how to evaluate their new fall lineups. The networks hope many of those missing viewers lost in that generation gap will show up when factoring in all of the viewing platforms over a longer period of time, not just the daily ratings numbers scrutinized in the past.
From Sept. 21 through Oct. 7, ratings for prime-time shows watched on the day they air on ABC, CBS and NBC were down an average of 8% compared with last year among the 18-to-49 age group that advertisers covet. Meanwhile, the 18-to-34 age group is watching even less TV, with ratings for the three networks down 17%.
Figuring out the additional number of viewers who watch a show on DVR playback, video on demand or online streaming can take weeks after a show airs. As a result, a generation of TV executives who are used to rolling out of bed and looking at overnight Nielsen ratings for a quick verdict on a new show are going to have to be more patient.
"The networks have learned to take a deep breath when they first get those ratings in," said Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president for CBS Primetime. "They are harder to read. In the past it was fairly easy. In the first couple of weeks you certainly had a gut feeling where the show was headed. Now so many of the shows are in the middle. You have to wait and see. You don't want to make a rash decision anymore because we invest a lot in these programs."
Although the drop in television usage and ratings among young viewers is a concern to Kahl and his peers, they have taken some comfort in the increases they are already seeing when just three days of DVR playback and video-on-demand numbers are added in. They will eventually roll in tallies from delayed viewing that occurs over seven days after a show airs and through online streaming.
The new fall programs showing the most promise so far are getting a lot of help from delayed viewing numbers. NBC's new drama "Blindspot," which performs solidly in the ratings thanks to having the singing competition hit "The Voice" as a lead-in on Monday nights, has gained 4.6 million viewers from DVR and video on demand plays. Its audience of 18- to 49-year-olds grew 62% with the added viewing.
CBS is seeing similar big playback gains for its new Tuesday drama "Limitless."
Fox gets modest live viewing numbers for its heavily promoted, Ryan Murphy-produced series "Scream Queens" — just 3.8 million. But it adds 2 million more in delayed viewing and gets a 65% boost in the 18-to-49 audience.
ABC's FBI-terrorism thriller "Quantico" has seen its audience of 18- to 49-year-olds grow 68% when delayed viewing of 4.1 million viewers is included.
Those added viewers don't go directly to the bottom line. Advertisers only pay for the extra audience that sits through the commercials when the shows are played back within three or seven days after airing.
The strong sampling for new shows probably has offset the live plus same-day ratings decline for many returning series. But those programs are seeing major gains from delayed viewing as well.
Kahl suggests that viewers are now in the habit of using the opening weeks of the season to try out new fare before going back to series they already like.
"They know they can get back to their old favorites," Kahl said. "They can watch it on their DVR. They can watch it on video on demand."
If those younger viewers don't show up for the networks' programs in significant numbers at some point, a chunk of TV's advertising dollars will follow them out the door.
Billie Gold, vice president and director of programming research for Amplifi US, said the trend could lead clients who need to reach the 18-to-34 audience to shift more of their spending to digital video platforms such as
"If they've disconnected from television, it's very hard to reach them," Gold said. "You start moving money to digital video because that's where they are going."