The man who isn't there

Broadcast networks are reeling as record numbers of young men say 'no thanks' to their offerings.

Glenn Fajardo rides a mean motorcycle when he gets the chance. This 24-year-old computer technician by day, online enthusiast by night, wishes he had more time for his bike.

Between his job and the various online communities he frequents (one for poetry, another for singles), not to mention his goal to get back to graduate school for advanced networking training, he has little time for the open road. And, to the chagrin of TV executives on both coasts, few hours for what he and his buddies consider "old-fashioned" entertainment, television.

"Oh, I keep it on when I'm cooking or getting ready to go out," says the cheerful techie. But he looks quizzical when asked about one of the broadcasting world's currently favorite concepts, "appointment TV."

Shows that you actually change your plans to watch? "Nah," he says with a laugh. "I keep the TV on the Discovery Channel or something interesting when I leave it on," he says, adding with a grimace, "Why would I keep it on the broadcast networks?"

Network executives appear to have a lot of trouble answering that question these days. Overall viewership is down nearly 10 percent from a year ago - a record low. (The decline is limited primarily to the six broadcast networks: basic and pay cable appear to be holding steady.) The new fall shows are being felled left and right - "Coupling" was just canceled this week, joining "Luis" and "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H." on the casualty list.

Most important and most distressing to the TV executives, young males such as Mr. Fajardo, who are considered the most sought-after demographic by advertisers, appear to be deserting their television sets in record numbers. Nielsen reports that people in this age group are watching nearly 12 percent less primetime TV than they were last fall.

Primetime pundits call Fajardo and his cohorts a canary in the network mine. "It's time for the broadcaster to wake up to what's going on right under their noses," says TV historian Ed Robertson. "The television audience has been changing for a while," he says. "People have far too many other choices of what to do with their time, and it's never going to go back to the good old days when most people - especially young people - choose TV as their first entertainment choice."

Ever since Ted Turner's CNN took cable mainstream and Rupert Murdoch's Fox network exploded the three-channel universe in the 1980s, networks have gotten used to hearing about their own demise. But don't count us out yet, says David Poltrack, head of research at CBS. The eye network has called on Nielsen to produce more information about what the numbers really mean.

"We don't know if this behavior is unique to this time and place," says Mr. Poltrack. "Or if this decline is likely to persist or grow more significant or change to an even greater degree in the future."

Nielsen says these numbers already tell a bigger story. In an effort to gauge just how much competition TV is getting from other forms of media entertainment in the lives of its 5,100 sample families, Nielsen also tracks every device hooked up to the TV.

"One of the things we've noticed is a big jump in the use of video games," says Nielsen's Anne Elliot, vice president for marketing and communications.

In just a year, the number of men playing video games in this key age range has risen by 21 percent, she points out. In conjunction with a sister Nielsen ratings system, which measures Internet usage, Elliot says that over the same time period, online instant messaging and game playing jumped more than 50 percent from September 2002.

"No single one of these elements alone has driven this usage shift away from TV," she says, "but once you put them together, it begins to explain some of the other things going on."

Both sides seem to agree on one thing: It wasn't this year's particularly bad programming that led these young men to stray. "Declines in TV-viewing predates this fall season," says Poltrack. "This suggests that it's not related to some form of rejection of the TV programs this season."

Fajardo cheerily confesses to not even knowing what was on. "I didn't tune in for any of the new fall season," says the computer technician. He seems slightly confused as he adds with a hesitant look, "When did it start anyway?"

But keeping up with the younger boys is only the tip of the iceberg, say media watchers. "People of all ages are being weaned away from the TV model by the Internet and other alternatives," says futurist Michael Zey.

"If the networks want that mass audience, they're going to have to bring an interactive element into the experience or they're just going to have smaller and aging audiences."

Sports is a good place to start experimenting with real time repurposing of TV programming, Mr. Zey adds.

"Sporting events [are] one of the few things left that people need to experience in real time," he says, pointing out the obvious. "Nobody watches the Super Bowl on their Tivo."

Fajardo says he and his buddies probably watch less than five hours of television a week.

But, he adds, he's still glued to a screen. He confesses to being an online gaming addict. "Whenever I have the chance that's what I do for fun," he says, "I don't turn on the TV."

All the networks need to do is get their shows online, he says with a laugh.

"I'd probably watch some of those shows if they were," he says. "Besides, that way they could reach people who spend time on their computers during the day, instead of waiting for them to get home and turn on their TV."

Getting online is just a tad harder for the networks than for Fajardo, but not for want of trying. CBS has extended its popular "CSI" franchise online with forensic games and murder investigations, and Fox has experimented with simultaneous online games connected to television shows for children, among others.

The networks are spending millions on trying to keep up with the changes.

But, say media pundits like Horizon Media's Brad Adgate, the question is: Will they change fast enough to keep up with the indicator species - young males aged 18 to 24?

"We're following these people very closely," says CBS's Poltrack. "We know a lot about their behavior," he adds.

To which Fajardo and his pals say, "I remember TV was an important part of my life when I was growing up. But," he says, his eyes flicking to the computer screens that flank his workplace, "not anymore."

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