By Betty Goodwin
Special to TelevisionWeek
Unlike their broadcast counterparts, several basic cable networks make no bones about tailoring their programming to women.
It’s working. In increasing numbers, women are tuning in to basic cable networks geared to women as well as those aimed at families.
Leading the way is the 21-year-old Lifetime Television Network, which far outdraws its niche rivals in terms of viewership even without its two sister networks, Lifetime Real Women and Lifetime Movie Network, which is the second-highest-rated cable net for women. Year to date, Lifetime is drawing an average of 540,000 women viewers between 18 and 49 in prime time, up from 532,000 last year at this time, according to Nielsen Media Research. Lifetime Movie Network averaged 135,000 women viewers in the same period, up from 126,000.
The other networks aimed at women, SoapNet, Oxygen and WE: Women’s Entertainment, all posted year-to-year viewership gains. The more broad-reaching “family” networks, Hallmark Channel and ABC Family, grew their female audience, too.
The key, according to Lifetime Executive VP of Research Tim Brooks, is knowing your audience, keeping the focus on its core interests and staying true to your brand.
“We don’t put on wrestling,” Mr. Brooks said. “We’ve turned down programs that could get good ratings but don’t fit our brand, Television for Women.
“We specifically look for programs that will be popular and appropriate for our brand. In a cable world, this is the era of niche TV, particularly brand TV, and each brand has its own audience,” Mr. Brooks added. “If we put wrestling on, half our audience would say, ‘I’m not going to watch Lifetime anymore. I don’t know what it stands for.'”
Lifetime made headlines last month when it reached out for the first time to male viewers in a promotional campaign for its first miniseries “Human Trafficking.” Despite strong ratings for the show, the network insists it won’t be targeting males again anytime soon.
Susanne Daniels, who joined Lifetime Television as president of entertainment in September after nine years at The WB, said she looks for shows that “feel distinctive, that don’t look like any other station and clearly feature women.”
Lifetime’s slate of original programming includes dramatic series (“Missing”), reality series (“How Clean Is Your House?”), specials and 18 movies this year.
“I think women have broad tastes and are more likely to watch a show their husband or boyfriend wants to watch than the reverse,” Ms. Daniels said, noting the popularity with female viewers of NBC’s new comedy “My Name Is Earl.” However, the testosterone-driven comedy wouldn’t be a fit for Lifetime, she said.
“Yes, it appeals to a lot of women, but does it appeal to the Lifetime brand?” Ms. Daniels said. “A show like ‘Gilmore Girls’ [which she developed at The WB] is more interesting to me than ‘My Name is Earl.’ It could generate good ratings and be on brand.”
“‘Alias’ would have been an interesting show for Lifetime,” she said. “You have a female lead, and it did a wonderful job of [depicting] a woman struggling with personal issues and at the same time being a strong action hero.”
Oxygen, which will mark its six-year anniversary in February, has found a niche within a niche.
The mandate, according to President of Programming and Marketing Debby Beece, is “No melodramas-ever.”
“If everyone is doing dramas and melodramas, we’ll go the other way,” she said. “We look at our channel as a company with a unique voice in the marketplace.”
“Mo’Nique’s Fat Chance,” a plus-size reality beauty competition, is typical of the network’s approach to originals. “Snapped,” its year-old true crime series about women accused of committing murder, has also done well for the network, as did the comedy series “Girls Behaving Badly,” now in national syndication. Oxygen plans to launch a scripted comedy, “Campus Ladies,” in January.
ABC Family is proving that a cable channel does not have to be a “women’s network” to bring in female audiences. Kate Juergens, senior VP for original series programming and development, said the network’s target is the 18 to 49 demo. “We do not specify women,” she said.
Nonetheless, several original shows have clicked with female viewers, who make up 60 percent of the ABC Family audience. “Wildfire,” a drama series set in the world of thoroughbred racing, was the third-highest-rated show in its time slot on basic cable among women 18 to 49, and “Beautiful People,” a drama series about a single mother who moves to New York with her two daughters, was the sixth-highest-rated show among women ages 18 to 34.
“At a pitch,” Ms. Juergens said, “we ask, will it appeal to our current audience? We want something that won’t inherently alienate men. We don’t want to lose them. We don’t want to lose the audience we have. We’re trying to create an environment where contemporary American families recognize themselves.”
Two-thirds of the new shows debuting on ABC Family in 2006 will have male leads, Ms. Juergens said, and the programming unit-formerly all female-recently had its own male debut. “We just hired a man [Fred Lidskog] as manager of programming for the male sensibility. Women tend to relate in a specific way, and to get a guy’s voice to break it up is more interesting to me.”
At the 4-year-old Hallmark Channel, understanding the brand is key, said David Kenin, executive VP of programming.
“Hallmark is 100 years old, and it’s done many self-evaluations,” Mr. Kenin said. “A lot of the characteristics of Hallmark are themes women respond to: family, character, relationships, celebrations. All those things relating to trust are part of Hallmark’s brand. We couldn’t do ‘Desperate Housewives’-that’s contrary to the brand.”
Kenin is an equal opportunity programming chief. He said that when he joined Hallmark three years ago the network audience was more female. “But it was a small audience,” he said. “I believed we would increase the number of women watching us by increasing the number of men.”
The plan seems to be working. From October 2004 to October of this year, Hallmark added more viewing households than any other ad-supported cable net.
Still, roughly 60 percent of Hallmark’s audience is female, a fact not lost on Mr. Kenin. “We have four movies, all starting with the word ‘love,'” he said.