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What Men Want (On TV)

With the American man in the middle of a cosmic cultural shift, and men’s time spent watching live TV other than sports on the decline, cable TV is grappling with its inner male.

From the days of Ward Cleaver, the preternaturally wholesome father on Leave It to Beaver, to the warped middle-class antihero Walter White on Breaking Bad, men have come a long way, baby, and programmers are laboring to understand and reflect the evolution of the male identity — and men’s tastes.

Over the last 10 years, that effort has been bookended by two polar-opposite network debuts.

Spike TV launched in 2003 as the first network aimed specifically at men, championing the Generation X guy with a slate including animation (Stripperella, The Ren & Stimpy Show), comedy (reality TV parody The Joe Schmo Show), syndicated reruns (Baywatch, the Star Trek franchises) and plenty of World Wrestling Entertainment action. It brazenly went for men who wanted to be men without apologizing for it. By 2006, it was firmly in the manly-man camp with a new tagline, “Get More Action.”

Esquire Network, aimed at the “millennial male,” launched last fall, just two months after Spike’s 10th anniversary, with a slate designed to appeal to a more upscale, urbane male viewer: an original special that established the brand (Esquire’s 80th Anniversary); lifestyle-themed reality shows built around food (Knife Fight), drink (Brew Dogs) and travel (The Getaway); just a touch of tasteful T&A (Women We Love, another special pulled from the pages of the magazine); and blocks of the off -HBO series Sex and the City, a holdover from femaleskewing Style, which it replaced.

In the intervening 10 years, a host of male-skewing general entertainment cable networks, from smaller networks such as IFC, Reelz and BBC America to larger ones like History and Discovery Channel, have invested countless dollars researching and redefining their core male viewer, both to fine-tune their programming to suit his changing sensibilities and to pitch him to advertisers. All while keeping their female audience.

From Duck Dynasty to Suits, Justified to Moonshiners, programmers are creating primetime characters and shows that sync up with the overarching conclusion of their research: The identity of the American male has become a kaleidoscope of diverse images.

“Like everything in the media universe, the male demo has started to fracture, and that has been a challenge for Spike and everyone who programs for men,” Spike president Kevin Kay said. “But there’s a place in men’s psyches — created by their jobs, their experiences, their families — that gives you an opportunity to program to them in a whole different way today.”

Meanwhile, advertisers are depicting new takes on both old and new male archetypes: Viagra’s Marlboro Man-type who won’t let a little mud stand in the way of the candle burning in the upstairs bedroom; Cialis’s Loving Husband, “moved” by his wife’s hair-twirling; Tide-Downy’s Stay-at-Home Dad, negotiating to wash his daughter’s princess dress by letting her play “sheriff ” and put him in jail; and Dos Equis beer’s Renaissance man “The Most Interesting Man in the World … the only man ever to ace a Rorschach test.”

If the way male-skewing cable nets are programming to men is any indication, men want to be men without offending their women — their mothers, wives, girlfriends, daughters, colleagues. Take ReelzChannel, which skewed 59% male in fourth-quarter 2013. CEO Stan Hubbard said his core male viewer is watching “thoughtful stories that are fun and entertaining and are not about girls on trampolines,” referencing a regular segment on Comedy Central’s The Man Show (1999- 2004), a totem in the evolution of men’s programming.

Going strictly by the primetime numbers, the simple answer to what men are watching when they’re not watching sports (or — let’s be honest — porn), can be neatly plugged into a few familiar categories: comedy (Modern Family, Workaholics), animation (Family Guy, Robot Chicken), reality (Shark Tank, Gold Rush) and, to a growing degree, scripted dramas (The Following, The Walking Dead). But what men seek out and expect from those categories — and why — has changed.

Nine out of 10 men tune into television for laughs, according to research by A+E Networks. “We consistently find they look to laugh and learn when they experience TV,” said Don Robert, senior vice president of research for the company, which saw both History and A&E rank in primetime’s top 10 networks among men 18-49 and men 18-34 last year.

Following laughs, 88% of men want to gain knowledge and 76% want to experience things they’ve never heard of before — “larger than life stories,” Robert said. Like the treachery of driving big rigs across weather-beaten terrain in History’s Ice Road Truckers. Or the challenge/danger/excitement of a dozen other brawny-occupation reality shows.

History’s Ax Men, for example, is currently in its seventh season, throughout which it has consistently been a weekly top-10 cable show among men 18-49. It follows four logging crews from around the U.S. as they cut down trees, compete for territory, drive big tractors and exert themselves physically — and, when they get angry, shout and curse and get in each others’ faces. Like The Real Housewives of New Jersey, but with chainsaws.

In “Dog Days,” the March 2 episode, two family-owned businesses logging the same hillside go at it after one crosses the territorial line.

“Hey you moth[------]ers, you’re stealing my [----]ing logs,” shouts Gabe Rygaard, head honcho on his crew, wielding a chainsaw as he runs wildly into a rival’s territory. “They’ll get what they [----]in’ deserve!”

If that sounds like the average guy just wants to watch manly men doing manly things, think again.

“The red herring in that is ‘average guy’; I don’t know what an average guy is,” Esquire Network general manager Adam Stotsky said.

Added Perry Simon, general manager of channels for BBC Worldwide America: “I don’t know what ‘manly man’ means.”

“I think there’s a tendency to categorize your audience and look at it through fairly simple filters … but there’s a lot of diversity across the male spectrum,” Simon said.

Evocative of classic Equal Rights Amendment-era women’s movement ideals, gender-reversed, both statements underscore how cable programmers are essentially championing the proposition that the male demo in the early 21st century is as multifaceted as the female demo.

“For quite some time as a society, and certainly as content creators and advertisers, we have addressed the complexity of the American woman,” Sharalyn Hartwell, executive director of Frank N. Magid Associates’s Generational Strategies group, said. “She’s not just a mom — she’s a professional, she’s an athlete, she’s a volunteer, she’s the CEO of the family.

“With the shifting gender roles, and particularly the growing gender neutrality among millennials, men are increasingly feeling this complexity as well,” Hartwell added. “They see themselves wearing many hats — dad, worker bee, cook, lover, handyman, therapist — and their taste in television is reflecting that.”

Comedy is the great mediator, providing a filter through which viewers can process the tectonic shift going on around them. But having grown up on Nickelodeon’s gender-balanced programming and irreverent satire (Rugrats, SpongeBob SquarePants), today’s men are looking for increasingly edgy comedies that reflect the changes back to them.

Comedies built around bumbling male stereotypes fall flat, Hartwell said, noting that the 2011-12 season marked a turning point, when CBS’s How to Be a Gentleman and ABC’s Man Up and subsequent midseason replacement Workin’ It were all canceled in short order.

“[Men] want to see the guy with heart, the guy with brains, the guy who’s a good dad, etc.,” Hartwell said. “They don’t see themselves as one-dimensional and they don’t want guys on TV that way either.”

That’s why a show like ABC’s Modern Family, with its intricate trifecta of Jay Pritchett (family patriarch on his second time around), Cam and Mitchell (gay dads about to be married) and Phil Dunphy (would-be magician dork-a-dad and husband), consistently ranks in the weekly top 10 among men 18-49. (The show’s female cast members, Sofia Vergara and Julie Bowen, also add to its male appeal.)

Broadcast comedies still dominate the primetime ratings for men 18-49. Putting ratings aside, men on the prowl for edgier satire, both animated and live-action, are turning to cable networks, noted Daniel Marcu, vice president of research and insights for IFC, which skewed 63% male in 2013. “They want something unexpected, a little quirky or twisted,” he said.

Shows like IFC’s absurdist Portlandia and miniseries The Spoils of Babylon, which premered in January, resonate with men because they reflect the myriad anxieties of navigating today’s shifting social norms and make men feel as if they’re “in the know.” The same could be said for a range of cable comedies that skew male, from Comedy Central’s latenight one-two punch of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to FX animated series Archer and Adult Swim’s male-skewing animation slate.

Men are also drawn to cable’s sprawling slate of shows in the “learning” and “living” genres. Take the week ended Feb. 16: Seven of the top 10 reality shows among men 18- 49 were cable originals, and of those, six belonged to A+E — A&E’s Duck Dynasty (2) and Wahlburgers (3), and History’s Pawn Stars (4), Swamp People (6), American Pickers (9) and Ax Men (10). Discovery’s Moonshiners was No. 8.

While that particular group of shows, all built around entrepreneurial endeavors and occupations — the brawnier, the better — may line up firmly on the manlyman side of the new American male, the same week’s reality show rankings among adult women were decidedly on the girly-girl side of the American female (The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love & Hip Hop, Keeping Up With the Kardashians). The impulse behind the tune-in is universal.

“What works well for us is a world that’s kind of aspirational and nostalgic,” Dirk Hoogstra, GM of History and H2, said, noting that, like women, men are feeling the pressure to do it all. “They feel they have to be the provider and nurturer and take a greater role at home, partly because they want to and partly because of the pressures of having a two-income family,” he said.

And, like women, they’re seeking out characterand story-driven reality fare that lets them project themselves into a different life. Where women might picture themselves in Beverly Hills housewife Lisa Vanderpump’s luxuriously appointed dressing room, men, Hoogstra said, “like to envision themselves in the wilderness as a lumberjack or a mountain man, living a simpler life in simpler times.”

With men and women following similar impulses in at least some of their TV viewing choices, even Spike is backing away from its boy’s-room persona. Vice president of research Sean O’Neil noted that Spike’s third-quarter 2013 58% male skew was its most balanced since 2009, when it was skewing 68% male. (The network was back up to 60% in Q4.)

Esquire Network, meanwhile, believes it can duplicate the same 65%-35% male-to-female split as its namesake magazine’s readership. “This is not the men’s locker room; women are very welcome at the Esquire Network,” Stotsky said. He was referencing the sensibility behind the network’s shows, but the comment also highlights a challenge cable’s two men’s programmers and roughly 35 male-skewing nonsports channels face: Can a network live by men alone?

Reaching men is easy for advertisers: They buy sports. Reaching women is a trickier proposition, so that’s where the lion’s share of the nonsports ad spend goes.

The March 3 rebrand of Discovery Communications’s Military Channel, which skewed 72% male in fourth-quarter 2013, to the American Heroes Channel is a telling example of the premium that cable networks place on co-viewing. Shifting the filter from battlefields to bravery shifts the playing field as well. Network general manager Kevin Bennett’s statement for the January announcement said it all.

“We’re excited to offer viewers [READ: female family members] a more diverse voice and storytelling style with American Heroes Channel.”

BBC America, with a 59% male skew in Q4, is looking to scripted dramas like miniseries Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, the centerpiece of its Winter Television Critics Association tour presentation, to create co-viewing opportunities. “We have Dominic Cooper in the lead — that totally hits the sweet spot of a man’s man’s show, but there’s not a woman on earth who wouldn’t be intrigued,” Simon said.

While basic-cable networks are exploring how to close the gender gap, premium networks aren’t shy about serving guys’s more salacious tastes. With Black Sails, which premiered Jan. 25, Starz is banking on hetero sex, lesbian sex and plenty of violent action to draw male viewers. Six months in advance of its series premiere, the network announced a second-season renewal.

“The premium cable shows aren’t afraid to skew male because they aren’t ad-supported,” Jack MacKenzie, executive vice president of Magid Associates, said. “HBO has Girls, but their big hits are Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire. Those are man’s-man shows, but since premium networks are only worried about subscribers, they can get away with it.”

In the basic-cable world, MacKenzie noted, “adsupported networks will go where the money is, and that’s more toward women and gender neutrality.”

TAKEAWAY

Cable programmers are grappling with how best to serve an increasingly fractured male demo.

How Guys Eat (Media)

While statistics suggest men watch less television than women, in general they actually consume more programming, says Frank N. Magid Associates EVP Jack McKenzie. Some trends among men 18-49:

88% had a cable- or satellite-TV subscription.

72% preferred to pay a monthly subscription price for a package of networks and services, while 28% preferred to pay as they go.

41% said they now spend more time watching full-length movies and TV shows because of OTT services.

46% had a subscription to an over-the-top service (Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus and/or Netflix).

52% purchased or downloaded a movie or TV show from a transactional site (such as the iTunes Store or Google Play).

SOURCE: Frank N. Magid Associates, “Video Entertainment Study,” a survey of 300 men 18-49, fall 2013