By Betty Goodwin
Special to TelevisionWeek
An examination of the latest developments in women-targeted network programming reveals a somewhat startling reality: to an increasing degree, the concept of programming specifically to women is growing less relevant.
It’s not that women don’t matter; on the contrary, they make up the majority of the television audience today, wield indisputable buying power and are the targets of gender-specific marketing campaigns.
The ratings numbers also bear out the clout female audiences carry. In the first two weeks of this season, “Desperate Housewives,” the top-rated show among women ages 18 to 49, brought in nearly twice as many women viewers-and a 16 rating-as “Lost,” the top-rated show for men ages 18 to 49, brought in men. “Lost” had an 8.6 rating among men, according to Nielsen Media Research.
But to a man-and, significantly, to a woman-top producers and network execs say they never create a show these days with the intention of appealing primarily to female audiences.
Even if they wanted to, it would be tricky. Consider: NBC’s new show about an only sort-of-lovable lout, “My Name Is Earl,” is often more popular with women viewers than with males. And would you guess that more women tune in to “Monday Night Football” than “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart”?
The latter example is the result of a ratings reality: A hit show draws a bigger audience of both men and women. It is that principle, along with an increasing female presence in the TV industry and creative community, that is driving the shift away from shows designed with women in mind, such as former CBS series “Judging Amy” and The WB’s “Gilmore Girls.”
Jim Leonard, executive producer and showrunner of the new CBS series “Close to Home,” about a woman prosecutor balancing her demanding work life with caring for her husband and baby, said creating a show to attract women viewers was the furthest thing from his mind.
“Wasn’t even thinking about it,” Mr. Leonard said. “I just wanted to tell good stories. I wanted to create a character I hadn’t seen on TV. I thought of what my wife went through when my kids were young and she was a professor at a community college. A lot of our friends are working mothers. Almost every female executive at Warner Bros. is struggling with this same balance.”
The creators of other shows that resonate with women say much the same thing.
“What I do is write, direct and create things that amuse me, and I hope will amuse others,” said Glenn Gordon Caron, executive producer and creator of NBC’s “Medium,” about a homemaker with psychic powers who solves murders. “Medium” attracts twice as many female viewers than male in all age breakdowns, including 18- to 49-year-olds, with 4.1 million women viewers. “When we make these things, I swear to you, we’re not thinking about these things. I don’t craft it toward a specific audience. You can’t be didactic about what you’re creating. It’s simply not productive.
“The reason our show is based on a woman,” Mr. Caron said, “is because it’s based on a real woman, Allison Dubois, who lives in Phoenix, Ariz., and is married to an aerospace engineer, a scientist” and who has three children. “Here’s a woman who all she sees and hears is death, but her life is filled with children and hope.”
Vivi Zigler, executive VP of current programs at NBC Entertainment, said that offering shows with broad appeal is the ideal. “Think of it as a diversified portfolio,” she said.
Marketing is a different story. “We absolutely are a business supported by advertising,” Ms. Zigler said, “and women watch more television than men.”
“Once we’ve purchased a show with broad appeal, we think, who is the core audience? We have to be cognizant of resonating with people we want to reach. ‘Medium” is a great example. We consciously targeted women [with promotions] in malls, movie theaters, on radio and cable. That’s not to say men wouldn’t watch it.”
Today women also frequently make up a large percentage of decision makers at the networks. While it’s difficult to pinpoint how the networks’ sensibilities are affected by this, it is clear that they are. And things weren’t always that way, said Mr. Caron, who recalled pitching “Moonlighting” in the 1980s.
“I brought Bruce Willis to ABC 11 times to get the job,” he said. “Each time the room was filled with men, and they said he wasn’t a leading man. Finally, the one woman at ABC, Ann Daniel, stood up and said, ‘I find him completely desirable and he makes perfect sense next to Cybill Shepherd.'”
The influence of female executives is usually subtle, Mr. Caron said. “Vivi Zigler and Erin Gough Wehrenberg [NBC Entertainment’s senior VP of current programs] have certainly called things to my attention.”
And while today’s female characters may be more realistically depicted, “I’m sure men are too,” Mr. Caron said. “The depiction of the American family as a whole has become more honest in the last two decades.”
Before moving over to TV with “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC, creator Shonda Rhimes made her reputation writing what she calls “girl power” movies like “Princess Diaries 2.” So by hiring her, the network “in a de facto sense was saying they wanted a show about women,” Ms. Rhimes said. “But I wasn’t mandated to develop a show for a female audience.”
Other reasons for changes in TV’s gender landscape are societal, said Mimi White, a professor of radio, television and film at Northwestern University. “Part of it are the long-term transformations that feminism helped bring about a generation ago that are now beginning to show,” Ms. White said.
“It used to be exceptional that shows featured women. Now it’s normal. Now there are few shows that don’t include women among the core characters. We forget that that’s a real change,” Ms. White said. “Even 10 years ago that wasn’t the case.”
Thus today, without much fanfare, TV’s female protagonists not only exist, they’re flourishing.
“Women-centered dramas are definitely a trend,” said Jonathan Taplin, a professor of media at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications. “We don’t change genres on TV that often. Police and police procedurals have been a mainstay for a long time, and the women were pushed off into comedy. Now it’s changing.”
Tim Brooks, executive VP of research for Lifetime, said the networks have been slowly skewing toward women in prime time since the 1960s.
“Nielsen was just beginning to report demographics showing what kinds of audiences were watching,” Mr. Brooks said. “Westerns drew older men. Sitcoms drew women and younger audiences, and advertisers wanted shows that attracted women because they were buying the goods, even the cars.” (They still are. Women now influence 58 percent of all automotive purchase decisions, according to research from JD Power and Associates.)
“It’s been an evolution,” Mr. Brooks added, pointing to the surge of shows with male appeal in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as “Homicide,” “Law & Order” and “X-Files.” And some programming clichés are true, he said.
“Men want shows with action and explosives. Women want to watch programs about relationships. Some shows try to mix the two. It’s been that way since the beginning. You can get an expert on Greek drama and he’ll tell you that women in ancient Greece wanted to watch dramas about relationships,” Mr. Brooks said.
Still, the counterintuitive success of a show like “My Name Is Earl”-which rated 6.1 among women ages 18 to 49 and 5.5 among men in the same demographic-not only proves that crafting TV hits is an art rather than a science but also that sometimes gender just doesn’t matter in terms of taste.
“It was the best NBC had,” said one network executive. “I don’t think anyone said, ‘Is it going to attract more men than women?'”