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Networks face sharp decline in young adult viewers; lack of reality shows blamed

By Wade Paulsen, 10/12/2003 

The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) reports that the first Nielsen ratings of the 2003-04 season contain bad news for the six broadcast networks. Viewership in the critical 18-34 demographic has dropped from the prior year by 12%.

The drop is considered so shocking, to both the networks and the advertisers who buy time on network shows, that Nielsen is investigating its cause. Nevertheless, the drop underscores a fundamental problem for the networks: their audiences are getting older and older. The median age of an ABC viewer LAST season, prior to this drop, was 43.6 years old; an NBC viewer, 46.2; and a CBS viewer, an elderly 53.8. By contrast, the median age of an MTV viewer is 21.5; the WB, 31.1; and Fox, 35. (UPN's median age is not given, although we presume that it's somewhere between its sister networks MTV and CBS.)

So what accounts for the dramatic decline? Many theories are advanced in the article, along with quotes from the networks, but the main cause is obvious: the dearth of reality shows on the networks' fall lineups. The article notes that younger viewers prefer the "cringe factor and shorter story arcs" of reality TV, but the networks scheduled only four reality shows to start the season: Fear Factor on NBC, The Bachelor and Extreme Makeover on ABC, and Survivor on CBS. By contrast, note that MTV airs, among others, The Real World, Road Rules, The Osbournes, Making the Band and Newlyweds, with more reality shows on the way.

Apparently the networks and advertisers may think of reality shows as "shit", as ABC called them during its "upfront" advertising pitches, but younger adult viewers think of the networks' scripted offerings that way. In fact, of the four reality shows currently running, the network that has benefitted the most is ... ABC, whose Extreme Makeover has produced stunning ratings against CBS's blockbuster CSI and NBC's Thursday-night comedies Will and Grace and Coupling. No wonder Fox can't wait until The Next Joe Millionaire premieres on October 20.


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