In Depth

What Women Watch: Cable Nets Offer Fresh Slice of Reality

Unscripted Shows Draw Female Viewers by Combining Stories, Information

Research has shown that women watch television more than men, and previous reports in TelevisionWeek back up those claims.

This is especially true of unscripted programming.

Reality shows are a staple of virtually all of the major cable television outlets that target women, including Lifetime, Oxygen, WE, Bravo, Style Network and Food Network.

“Style Network is really providing a mix of shows that fall into the category of unscripted programming. We’re not traditional reality. A number of our shows offer a blend of storytelling along with information,” said Suzanne Kolb, executive vice president of marketing and communications for E! and Style.

Style’s most popular show for women is “Clean House,” a makeover show that stars actress Niecy Nash, who also is part of the “Reno 911” comedy series. “It really is a beautiful blend of comedy and lifestyle programming,” Ms. Kolb said. “Niecy is very funny and it’s a very funny show. It really speaks to the fact that our audience, like many women, are busy people and they need to have a moment of entertainment. So the comedy on our air really seems to resonate.”

Style Network personalities such as Ms. Nash, fashion guru Kimora Lee Simmons (“Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane”), soap opera actress Finola Hughes (“How Do I Look?”) and interior decorator/ “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” alum Thom Filicia (“Dress My Nest”) drive the shows that are most popular with women.

“I think there are different reasons why women are watching. With Kimora, I think it’s the fact that she’s an empowered woman who has in her life many of the same things that most of our viewers are dealing with,” said Ms. Kolb. “She has a job, she has relationships, she has children to take care of. She may be doing that at a decibel level that’s higher than our audience, but she is really dealing with many of the same things our audience is dealing with in a very escapist way. I don’t think everyone out there has the support system she has. So it’s not purely that she’s a woman, but that probably gives aspects to her life a relatability that wouldn’t exist if she were a man.”

Personalities also are key to Food Network’s success with women, starting with Rachael Ray, host of four programs on Food Network—“30-Minute Meals,” “$40 a Day,” “Inside Dish” and “Tasty Travels”—in addition to her weekday syndicated talk show produced by Harpo, Oprah Winfrey’s company.

“Rachael embodies and reflects the core viewer of Food Network,” said Michael Smith, senior vice president of marketing and creative services for the network. “She’s a woman in her late 30s, early 40s, into finding quick and easy solutions, she’s relatable, bright, obviously works. She’s the most popular. There are three or four others: Paula Deen; Ina Garten, the ‘Barefoot Contessa’; Giada De Laurentiis; and Sandra Lee.”

Food Network once was known as the Emeril channel or the Bobby Flay channel, referring to chefs Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay, both of whom started on the Food Network when it began in 1993. Today, however, women turn to Food Network for more than star chefs.
A woman looks to the Food Network for “entertainment, but entertainment that speaks to her lifestyle, the things that she’s interested in,” said Mr. Smith. “A lot of nonfiction networks, whether it’s TLC or Discovery or A&E or HGTV or us, have found that you can do entertainment programming that isn’t just comedy or dramas [or] sports, by doing shows about particular subjects that women are interested in.”

Mr. Smith distinguishes between reality shows and what Food Network presents. “I call them nonfiction shows, vs. ‘Law & Order,’ ‘Desperate Housewives,’ real fiction shows. When I was a kid, nonfiction meant ‘CBS Reports With Edward R. Murrow.’ But now nonfiction means shows that can be entertaining—the information itself is entertaining. Shows about true things can be fun to watch.

“For instance, we know that women love baking. We know they love wedding cake preparation, so we’ve created a nonfiction show called ‘Ace of Cakes,’ which is about a bakery, Charm City Cakes, and the really interesting group of characters that work there. Each week they have a challenge of making a cake for a major event.”

Style Network has discovered a time period that appeals to women that’s been relatively untapped: late night. “A lot of programming at 11 o’clock was targeted at men, yet there were a lot of available women to watch TV. We saw that women were underserved at that time of night. The kids are asleep, the husbands are winding down, and women are looking to relax and enjoy themselves,” said Salaam Coleman Smith, executive VP, Style. “We started Style Nightcast, and we’ve actually seen some of the biggest spikes in the 11 p.m. slot in years. We feature our highest-rated shows in that timeslot, and we’ve also launched some new shows. The ratings are up about 35%. It’s ironic because it’s not the immediate place that you would go.

“Another place that’s successful for us is weekends. That’s prime time for Style. Our Style recipe is personality meets great stories and usable information. It’s reflected in all of our shows.”

The 11 o’clock hour has been a big draw on Food Network, too, thanks to “Iron Chef America.” It seems like it would be a male-oriented show, but that’s not the case, said Mr. Smith. “‘Iron Chef’ is actually more female, because the genre of food itself is just intrinsically more interesting to women than men. It’s closer to 50-50 than other Food Network shows,” he said.
“We’ve learned over the years that competition is not necessarily a male thing. Guys like sports, but they don’t just watch anything because it’s people competing. Competition in food is very appealing to women. Women like competition, too,” he added, citing “Project Runway” and “America’s Top Model.” “Women relate to food being prepared, and a competition about that is more interesting to them.”

“Style Network offers women both entertainment and information on how you bridge the gap between that idealized self and her real self,” said Ms. Coleman Smith. “Most women, I think, have an idealized version of themselves, and then there’s the reality behind the ideal. We bring together aspirational as well as accessibility.”

The Style female viewer is complicated, said Ms. Coleman Smith. “She’s the modern woman, and there are all kinds of women—those with children, those who are working, those who are working and raising children, single women. What ties them all together is this concept of self-improvement, whether it’s in how they look, how they live and how they are. To sum it up, it’s a modern woman who’s continually looking to be the best that she can be. That’s the common thread.”

Core Viewership

Food Network demographics show the channel is primarily a female destination. “The viewership is 60-40, female to male. During the daytime, it’s more 70-30,” Ms. Coleman Smith said. “The core fan of Food Network is likely to be a woman in her mid-40s. She’s slightly more upscale than average. We’re in the top five delivering women in households with incomes of $75,000 or more. She’s upscale, well educated, in her early 40s, works, has kids and is looking for meal solutions. She has the resources to travel and enjoys eating out in restaurants.”

She is also a food fan. “Food Network has established itself as a destination for food fans. Almost like a passion or a fan club. If you’re a food fan, this is the place you go. In the same way ESPN is the go-to brand for sports fans, we have tried to make ourselves the go-to brand for food fans.”

Advertisers know the Food Network delivers female viewers. “That gives us a great edge with advertisers, the engagement that we’re able to deliver. People are worried these days about the environment in which their ads run, especially with TiVo, DVRs, and the idea that viewers are skipping through ads,” said Mr. Smith.

“The context in which an ad runs is very important to advertisers,” he added. “If you’re a food or lifestyle advertiser, your ad on Food Network is not seen as an interruption. It’s seen as part of the overall experience.”

Style delivers a specific demographic that advertisers desire. “We have one of the youngest viewing audiences. We’re also one of the most affluent networks in that we have the highest concentration of affluent women,” said Ms. Coleman Smith. “Young, affluent women—that’s a demographic that advertisers are looking to partner with and looking to buy time. We get a lot of real strong advertiser interest.”

In exchange for tuning in to Style, the women receive a service: the inspiration to change. “For us, the transformation really does distinguish us, as well as the fact that there is a personality in the way that we present ourselves. The personalities on the air are a mix of helpful and joyful and very much your well-qualified but mostly good friends,” said Ms. Kolb. “Many of our competitors go for a harder edge in their experts. They really tell you exactly how to do it and you can’t deviate from that. Our network is more like the kind of advice you’ll get from a friend you trust. There’s a warmer sense to how we present Style.”

Style appeals to women across multiple platforms. “We have a very interactive brand. It’s about people being actively engaged and involved and inspired to do something that helps their lives,” said Ms. Kolb. “We recently relaunched our Web site, MyStyle.com. Basically the whole style of MyStyle.com is the notion of ownership. Being able to use all aspects of the Style brand as a tool.”

In addition to Nielsen numbers, Style measures how it’s reaching women in the way the network interacts in person. “From a ratings perspective, we feel that women are liking what they’re seeing. Even more importantly, we have a number of grassroots things that we’ve been doing around the country to have women talk to us directly,” said Ms. Kolb. “We have a Style Bus that goes around the country doing makeovers. People line up six, seven hours before the bus arrives. We’ve also had viewers reach out to us via the Web site with emails, especially on the pro-social side.

“We feel like we’re making a difference with what we’re doing. It’s the reaction of viewers that makes us feel like they’re part of a group, which goes back to our presenting Style Network as a circle of friends. Viewers see us that way,” she said.

Crossing Platforms

Ms. Coleman Smith adds, “When we think of the category of personal style in terms of how you look and live, it’s a daily pursuit. One of the things about these cross-platforms is that, when you think of how people use the Internet or mobile phone, it’s a daily part of their lives. We have a unique brand that speaks across platforms. Very strong video-on-demand. We also have a wireless initiative. We’ve been featured on the Apple iTunes storefront with Kimora.”

Food Network also emphasizes helping women, especially during the daytime part of its schedule. “In the morning and into the afternoon until 7 o’clock, women are in meal-preparation mode. They are looking for solutions, information, ideas,” said Mr. Smith. “The average American mom has to make two to three meals a day, seven days a week for her family. It’s a lot of meals she has to come up with. She’s looking for solutions and ideas—that’s shows like ‘30-Minute Meals’ with Rachael Ray and ‘Semi-Homemade With Sandra Lee.’
“After 7, we have Food Network night-time. It’s when people are sitting back and relaxing and they’re looking more for entertainment. They’re still interested in the category of food, but they want the food to entertain them more than they want food instruction.”