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TRYING TO CATCH YOUNGER EYES

Networks look to sweeps to lure back coveted demographic

As the November sweeps period gets underway, the broadcast networks are hoping the likes of Britney Spears, Will Smith, and Justin Timberlake can lure young viewers back to the small screen.

So far this fall, there have been almost no new hit shows, with one of the most highly anticipated, NBC's "Coupling," given the ax yesterday. And audience levels have dropped among adults under 35, particularly men (except for those watching the baseball playoffs).

Among men 18 to 34, prime-time viewership on cable and broadcast TV combined is down from 10.3 million a year ago to 9.6 million this season, according to Nielsen Media Research. Among all viewers in that age group, viewership is down a full million people, Nielsen says, from 21.3 million to 20.3 million.

So where is everybody? Why is TV's most sought-after demographic shrinking? The theories abound.

Nielsen suggests that more young men are playing video games, watching DVDs, and perhaps surfing the Internet.

Some television executives say the wild success of the baseball playoffs disrupted the season's launch and skewed the numbers. Still, even they concede that today's top shows, including "Friends" and "Survivor," are older now and can't draw the huge numbers they used to.

Advertising companies -- who pay a premium to reach young people -- put the blame on the current crop of new fall shows, which they are calling a bust. "Coupling," once considered a possible successor to "Friends" as a reliable hit, joined CBS's "The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire" and Fox's "Luis" on the cancellation list.

This time last year, men were watching shows such as Fox's "Fastlane" and HBO's "The Sopranos." "Fastlane" was canceled (because it didn't have enough total viewers), and "The Sopranos" won't return until March.

"The best drama this season took place in Fenway Park and Wrigley Field," said John Rash, senior vice president of broadcast negotiations at the Minneapolis ad agency Campbell Mithun. "Television can still capture the American public's imagination. But the programs simply have to get better."

Of the top four broadcast networks, ABC is having a better season than its competitors with its new shows, in the Nielsen numbers and in the resulting programming decisions.

Last week, the network announced that it was ordering a full season of episodes for the new dramas "Threat Matrix" and "10-8," as well as for four of its new comedies, including the Boston-set "It's All Relative."

"We don't see any big declines at our network," said Jeff Bader, executive vice president of ABC Entertainment.

In response to the slippage, some television executives have wondered whether Nielsen may have somehow collected faulty information. "We're still doing a lot of analysis to see what is going on," said Dave Poltrack, executive vice president of research at CBS. "To have a decline in television usage of this magnitude is unusual. There is no real explanation."

Last week, Nielsen sent a memo to its clients maintaining that it had "assiduously" checked and rechecked its technology and "found no systemic errors."

On cable, HBO's viewership is down 24 percent among men 18 to 34 so far this season, which may be largely because "The Sopranos" is not on. Male-oriented channels such as Spike TV report some progress: Its reality program "The Joe Schmo Show" broke the network's ratings record last week when it attracted 3.4 million viewers for the Oct. 28 finale.

ESPN's football drama "Playmakers" has also attracted some attention, averaging 2.2 million viewers an episode.

But clearly, gains of that size on cable can't account for the lost audience on broadcast TV. This time last season, NBC's "Friends" was averaging 26.5 million viewers an episode. So far this season -- its 10th and final one -- "Friends" has averaged 20.7 million.

Another buzz-generating show, "Joe Millionaire," has been such a ratings disappointment in its second season that Fox has decided to run only one episode per week, instead of the planned two.

To stem the tide, the big six networks are counting on special sweeps programming to draw eyes, though some of it isn't aimed specifically at younger viewers. On Friday, Martha Stewart will break her silence on ABC's "20/20" with Barbara Walters. Diane Sawyer will chat with former Iraqi POW Jessica Lynch on "Primetime" Nov. 11. And Peter Jennings will explore the John F. Kennedy assassination as the event's 40th anniversary draws near.On lighter notes, Britney Spears will star in her own ABC prime-time special, featuring performance footage and behind-the-scenes clips of her life. And Trista and Ryan, formerly of "The Bachelorette," will share footage of their wedding preparations. CBS will surely get some men to tune in to the annual "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show" on Nov. 19.

Will they watch "The Andy Griffith Show Reunion: Back to Mayberry" on Nov. 9? Maybe not. CBS has also prepared a television movie about kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart and a controversial miniseries about President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy.

On NBC, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" will return for two episodes this month.

In addition, Justin Timberlake and Shania Twain will appear in music specials, and Lynch will be profiled in what amounts to an action movie Sunday.

On UPN, former rapper and actor Will Smith and rapper Missy Elliott will guest star on "All of Us" and "Eve," respectively.

Fox, which launched its fall season late because of baseball, will offer fresh episodes of "24" and "The Simpsons" and will broadcast an "American Idol" Christmas special and the acclaimed comedy "Arrested Development."

Advertising executive Rash said the networks' decision to downplay sweeps stunts in favor of regularly scheduled programs is a mistake. "It's that very schedule that is increasingly rejected by many viewers," he said.

"The explosion of cable channels, TiVo, video games, and DVDs is in a headlong collision with compressed time schedules, longer commutes, and many people working multiple jobs. I think increasing numbers of younger males don't look towards the networks as a destination."

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at sryan@globe.com

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