Men driving media changes

It's frightening to consider that a 32-year-old investment banker and a 20-year-old college student might be colluding to spearhead a media upheaval.
November 1, 2008

It’s frightening to consider that a 32-year-old investment banker and a 20-year-old college student might be colluding to spearhead a media upheaval. But male viewers aged 18 to 34 are unequivocally driving the movement of television viewing, both on linear and non-linear platforms. US networks and media buyers alike are hammering away to pin down this finicky group, because wherever they go, others will follow.

Neal Tiles, president of male-targeted net G4, is keenly aware that this demo has very important media habits. ‘First and foremost,’ he notes, ‘they are driving this revolution because of their media consumption habits. They’re comfortable manipulating technology, moving from platform to platform, finding the content they want, when they want it and where they want it.’

This media revolution appears to be leaving some traditional TV platforms behind. Sam Armando, SVP director of research, analysis and activation at media agency Starcom, says what no TV exec wants to hear: ‘They are one of the demos that watches the least amount of television.’ According to Nielsen Media Research, males aged 18 to 34 make up 29.5% of the US population watching TV in primetime, whereas women in the same age group are 32.9%. Armando reasons that the demo with the lowest TV usage numbers just isn’t home enough to sit in front of the tube. And if they are home, they’re engaged with other forms of technology, like the Internet and their iPods.

But this doesn’t neccesarily spell doom for factual networks. Although it’s no surprise that this sports-minded demo would list ESPN as its top-rated cable network, cablecasters with factual are still ranking. Discovery places seventh and Spike TV rates ninth among their top cable nets.

Discovery’s SVP of research, Kevan Mabbutt, credits Discovery’s programming variety with its appeal to audiences, which has always included younger males. ‘I think what we’ve seen, in the past year and a half to two years, is probably a more deliberate attempt to bring them in through some shows that perhaps haven’t worked in overall audiences, but have worked extremely well in the younger male demographic, shows like Fight Quest and The Last One Standing,’ he says. ‘They’ve always been amongst the flighty, unpredictable light-viewing group, and that’s why they’ve always been so sought after,’ Mabbutt notes.

The factors needed to keep those viewers compelled, observes Mabbutt, are a combination of ‘just enough’ edge and contemporary reference, and a cast with credibility and authority. It’s a combo that can be seen in MythBusters and Dirty Jobs, and new series Smash Labs and Verminators.

Spike TV has been exclusively seeking out this demo for the past five years. It filled a void for male-targeted networks by launching at a time when the TV landscape was female-friendly. According to Thomas Grayman, senior director of brand and consumer research, ‘In all of our marketing and our promotions, not to mention the programming itself, we try to communicate that sensibility of Spike being a place where guys can be guys, unapologetically so, and pursue the entertainment sources that young men appreciate.’

Grayman says that Spike uses a multi-pronged approach. He outlines the programming strategy as having shows with action and intensity (such as The Ultimate Fighter), mainstream entertainment in the form of scripted dramas (for which the network had the scripted mini-series The Kill Point), and informational programming. For the latter, Grayman cites popular Spike show, Manswers, as a program that provides information only a young man would enjoy – such as how long you can survive on beer alone. (The answer: after three to five days, the body starts to break down fats to produce energy and six weeks later the body goes into a coma.)

Spike’s senior director of research, Sean O’Neill, says the net also had a clear win by providing their programming in a high definition feed. ‘Men gravitate to HD content more so than women, which is a bit of an opposite of what we see in TV in general. In HD homes, it’s the men who are driving the viewing,’ he says.

G4 takes a different approach. The Comcast-owned net focuses on the über-male subjects of tech gadgets, Web culture and video games. G4 president Tiles says its successful linear programming comes from a specific strategy: ‘It’s the things that play into our overarching target of Internet-savvy, tech-savvy, video game lifestyle type of guy that is not fully captured by traditional definitions of beer, booze, and babes – which has been the prevailing attitude on what guys are about.’ Ninja Warriors, a reality-competition program, is a success for the network, as are live daily show Attack of the Show, and X-Play, a video game review program.

Although Discovery, Spike and G4 are all solid go-tos for males, media experts know that in order to pin down this demo, one must look at the broader landscape. Miraj Parikh, director at Chicago-based media company Spark Communications, says that besides the few male-oriented nets, there are no other obvious choices. ‘There’s no watching the same network all day long,’ says Parikh. ‘If they’re watching 12 shows over a week, it could be 12 different networks.’ Parikh believes many networks have gone younger with their content, so they’re fragmenting the audience even further. He lists History’s Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men and TruTV’s Black Gold as examples of non-traditional shows grabbing those male viewers.

However, TV as it is traditionally known is in the process of being eclipsed by other technology. Timeshifting, DVR and TiVo are concerns to every network and media buyer. In an age when Barack Obama’s campaign bought advertising time in video games, it’s become apparent that times are changing. Discovery’s Mabbutt says that TiVo and DVRs are on the rise, which has taken a toll on watching live. ‘Live viewing is down for this age group, but that’s across the board. If you look at broadcast or the non-fiction and general cable space, that’s the case and we’re no different,’ he says.

G4 sees validity in getting audiences in other arenas, like games, mobile, online and podcasting. ‘We do anywhere from four to six million VOD views per month, which is by far more than our competitors,’ says Tiles. G4 is grouped into the ‘Cutting Edge Genre’ in the VOD platform, up against and Adult Swim. ‘We regularly pull as many views as the rest of the category combined,’ he says.

According to Spark’s Parikh, the tech knowledge of young men is starting to spread. ‘This audience tends to be influencers. They’re the ones promoting and telling the rest of their circle of friends what’s going on,’ he says. ‘You’re just starting to see people who would never even know how to spell podcast, do it.’

If they are interested in podcasts, they’re probably downloading from G4. Says Tiles, ‘We’re doing eight to 10 million podcast downloads per month and there really isn’t anyone that’s in sight of us in the competitive set that sees that kind of traffic.’

Tiles understands that young males are comfortable with new tech and when they’re on non-linear platforms, they’re looking for familiar brands and titles. Male viewers online may come across G4′s content and, although the name is familiar, the content is new to them, since the cablecaster isn’t fully distributed in the us. G4 is carried in 65 million homes, so there are still 35 million homes that could be discovering G4 on non-linear platforms.

Spike also enjoys the benefits of online. Its website was revamped and is considered more of an extension of the brand than an extension of what’s on TV. Says David Schwarz, VP of communications, ‘the website is bringing people that wouldn’t normally watch Spike. That’s actually different from the model that a lot of channels used to use, where it would go from the channel to the website. We’re doing the reverse.’

So although G4 and Spike’s reach is greater online, putting all of the eggs in the non-linear basket perhaps isn’t the best idea just yet. Tiles explains that G4 does well on VOD, podcasting and broadband video because competitors aren’t where G4 is. ‘I understand that a lot of that is driven by advertising models that are a bit behind,’ he says. ‘They haven’t caught up with the consumption habits of young guys and they probably won’t until more than just young guys are consuming media across platforms.’ Instead, the network must rely on linear programming for advertising dollars.

Mabbutt says Discovery is in the same boat, as it increases efforts on non-traditional platforms. ‘The revenue models have not fully developed, but to some extent you’ve got to get the audience first and the models will follow. That’s always been the case. It’s just a slightly scary period before you get to the revenues.’

Spark’s Parikh defends the advertising decisions as logical. ‘I don’t think anyone from the agency or client standpoint diminishes the usage, and I would actually argue that there’s no reason for us to ignore an opportunity to reach a consumer,’ he says. ‘[However], the pricing models and the opportunity to interact with those areas are extremely expensive. It becomes very difficult to justify a significant premium to reach an audience that is, in relative terms, in small numbers.’

Nonetheless, many networks are undeterred, and are busy researching how best to use these relatively new platforms. Discovery is working with various research agencies to find the ‘holy grail,’ as Mabbutt calls it, of multi-platform success ratings.

Over at G4, research is done more on a monthly basis on non-linear impressions than linear. ‘Non-linear tends to allow you to get access to the entire country, versus linear where you’re basically at the distribution mercy of whoever carries you,’ he says.

And Spike’s Grayman is optimistic from his network’s research. ‘This past third-quarter, usage levels were at a level they haven’t been at in the history of this channel,’ he says. ‘With DVRs and multiplatform content, there’s just more to consume, and these people aren’t necessarily substituting one for another, they’re making more time for all of this and engaging across a number of platforms.’

So while advertising models aren’t yet willing to commit to wholly supporting non-linear platforms, networks are dedicated to be where that demographic is. As Spike’s Grayman says, ‘You really want to be wherever these guys go. If they’re in their car, or on a bus, or at the dentist’s office, you want to be on every platform.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.