By Adam Sandler
Special to TelevisionWeek
Call them the Checkbook Moms-an influential group of adult female television viewers whom advertisers spend billions trying to reach.
These viewers are courted not only because they buy products and services for themselves but because they also shop for their husbands, children, parents, neighbors and friends. They have considerable sway when it comes to major buying decisions, and advertisers, marketers and network programmers know it. These women influence the buying decisions for more than 85 percent of all goods and services purchased, according to research from J.D. Power and Associates.
“Adult women have more purchasing power and are more likely to make buying decisions, which makes them ideal targets for advertisers,” said Tom Bierbaum, VP of ratings and program information for NBC Universal Television Group. “Plus, they tend to watch more television, so they are easier to reach than their male counterparts.”
Women’s purchases are substantial. They are key decision-makers in 91 percent of purchases of homes and in 51 percent of consumer electronics buys, the J.D. Power research indicates. They also organize the family vacations 92 percent of the time. They are key decision-makers in 65 percent of car purchases, with women ages 40 to 50 buying the most cars, followed by women in their 30s.
Women are also buying trucks and SUVs in growing numbers. Twenty percent of the 900,000 Ford F-150 pickup trucks purchased last year were bought by women, compared with 16 percent in 2002.
Car dealers and automakers spent a combined $1.2 billion on spot television buys, which traditionally target women, in the top 100 markets during the second quarter of 2004, a 10.2 percent increase over 2003, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising. Autos far outpaced the $305 million logged by restaurant advertisers, the second-largest spender during the quarter.
Women are also earning more. Their median income, adjusted for inflation, has increased 63 percent since 1970, while men’s earnings have grown less than 1 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data for 2000.
Census data from 2003 shows 51.5 percent of U.S households contain married couples, and that 25.2 percent of working wives earned more than their husbands.
Women also outnumber men in 43 of the 50 states. Nationally, women account for 50.9 percent of the U.S. population.
With such powerful statistics, marketers and programmers have acknowledged that the adult female viewer is a growing economic force.
During the premiere week of the 2004-05 season, 37.5 percent of females 18 to 49 were watching television during an average prime-time minute, compared with 33.8 percent of men in that age group, according to Nielsen Media Research. In the 18 to 34 group, 33.5 percent of women were watching and only 29.5 percent of the men. In the 50-plus demographic, more than half the women-51.8 percent-were watching TV, compared with 47.2 percent of the men.
Prime-time programs such as CBS’s “CSI” and NBC’s “Law & Order” and “Will & Grace” are among the shows that draw large numbers of female viewers 25 to 54.
In the opening salvos of the 2004-05 prime-time season, NBC’s “LAX” was among the new offerings showing strong appeal among women 25 to 54, according to Nielsen.
Women’s programming choices are nothing if not diverse. Another new series, The WB’s “Jack & Bobby,” a politically themed drama with strong character content, drew a large contingent of female viewers. Though the show skewed young in its initial airing, with a 5.2 rating in female teens, it also found favor among women 18 to 49.
Reaching those viewers can at times be expensive for advertisers. Of the top-rated series with the most expensive commercial time, many are shows that are popular with female viewers. A 30-second spot on “Friends” was the richest last year, with an average price tag of $473,500. But it will cost advertisers $479,250 this season to reach female viewers in the same slot, which is now held by “ER,” according to a survey released by TelevisionWeek sister publication Advertising Age.
Bastions of female-friendly programming are finding both good news and bad: Adult women viewers are very brand-loyal, whether it be to products or programs, but there is more competition than ever for their attention and money.
Lifetime Television has long been a TV buyer’s go-to outlet to reach the adult female demo, but viewer levels have been stagnant. The channel continues to pull more women 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 in prime time and total day than any other basic cable network, but the ratio of these desirable demos to its total audience has largely stayed flat, reflecting the competitive environment.
To reinvigorate viewer and advertiser interest, Lifetime recently launched New Movie Monday, an effort designed to attract more female viewers with original and first-run films. “Movies have helped to build the Lifetime brand,” said Rick Haskins, executive VP and general manager of Lifetime Entertainment Services. The channel also has distanced itself from its story line staple of women-as-victim programs in favor of more stimulating originals and empowering topics.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Oxygen and WE networks have not been particularly effective in reaching large numbers of women or convincing advertisers to buy commercial time, though they were launched with much promise to do just that. Their prime-time audience numbers have been soft, landing them near the bottom of the top 50 ad-supported cable channels in total viewers.
Both networks have been retooling their programming in an effort to land the potent female demographic and to get key advertisers to spend more.
But they are not alone.
TBS is using the hit HBO series “Sex and the City” to lure female audiences. Despite experiencing some viewer fall-off since the series’ launch, its main target demo of 18- to 49-year-old women is considered solid.
Ditto for sister outlet TNT, which scored a ratings bonanza when it aired “What Women Want,” the film starring Mel Gibson as an old-school advertising agency executive forced to tap into the female consumer zeitgeist in an effort to land new clients. The coveted 18 to 49 demo flocked to the cable channel’s three prime-time airings of the film (and one airing outside prime time), with females comprising nearly half of all viewers.
Other outlets recently posting gains in female viewers include HGTV, Hallmark Channel, ABC Family and Bravo, with the latter developing a number of programs targeted to adult women, including the spinoff “Queer Eye for the Straight Girl.”
“It’s something our female viewers have been requesting,” said Bravo President Jeff Gaspin. “And it’s a part of our growth to be both an entertainment and pop culture channel.”
It’s debatable whether the economic power of adult women viewers has translated into more realistic onscreen portrayals. Some female network executives and producers admit there are still gains to be made on the programming side. Most have adopted a “We’re getting there, but we’re not totally there yet” attitude.
“Women are a powerful economic force,” said Jackie Zabel, a TV writer and producer and VP of development for Stellar Productions. “The need for viewers may prompt the industry to pursue the adult female demographic with programming as aggressively as they do the young males.
“TV holds a mirror to where we see women in society,” she said. “And in the last 10 years there have been an increasing number of female professionals on television.”