In Depth

TV Broadcasters Bet on Men to Help Save Declining Ratings -- Big Four Go After Guys With Grittier Programs Like Fox's 'Dads' and CBS's 'We Are Men'

By Jeanine Poggi
Advertising Age

Broadcast TV is out to prove it's where the boys are.

Prime time isn't normally the place advertisers target young men. Broadcast viewers are predominantly female -- even more so when sports is excluded. No wonder the major TV networks have churned out series after series starring powerful and quirky female leads.

But the success of male-skewing cable hits like "The Walking Dead" and "Breaking Bad" has given broadcasters a renewed focus on men to strike a better balance between the genders. On the slate this fall season, which kicks off this week, are male-centric comedies like Fox's "Dads," "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and CBS's "We Are Men"; genre series like ABC's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" and the CW's "Tomorrow People"; along with gritty dramas like NBC's "The Blacklist" and the retread "Ironside."

The hope is that men will help halt the broadcast-ratings decline: The networks collectively lost about 8% of their audience last season. Fox relinquished its No. 1 spot as the most-watched broadcaster among adults 18 to 49 to CBS, while ABC came in last place among the Big Four in the demo.

"Networks realize that in order to grow they need to bring in men," said Sam Armando, senior VP-director of strategic intelligence at Publicis Groupe's SMGx.

ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee said he thinks "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." may do just that. "It is going to recruit a whole new audience," said Mr. Lee at the TV upfronts in the spring. ABC has had several recent failed attempts at more male-skewing shows with "Last Resort" and "Zero Hour."

To make room for the series on Tuesday nights, ABC is scratching the "Dancing With the Stars" results show, which leans about 70% female.

The CW, long been considered a hub for teenage girls, has also been trying to diversify its audience with darker dramas and sci-fi fare like "The Tomorrow People" and "The Originals."

But there are some serious hurdles for broadcasters to overcome in order to reach the elusive male viewer.

Broadcasters can't get too racy, as they contend with decency standards cable channels can ignore. And networks also can't forsake female audiences. "Cable has a niche and can succeed with lower ratings. Broadcast needs to bring in males without alienating the female viewer," Mr. Armando said. "I can't recall a broadcast show that was hugely successful that skewed highly male."

"Network isn't the place to target males. If you are looking to reach young males you are buying sports or male-targeted cable," said Amy Sotiridy, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Initiative. The final step is to convince advertisers otherwise: That those looking to reach a dual audience or promote masculine products need to be on broadcast prime time.