Skip to main content

What Women Watch: No More Apologies

TV programming that targets the “Lady of the Household” may sound pretty dated. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. And sometimes, that’s not such a bad thing.

Amid all the noise in the last decade about chasing the elusive young, male demographic, the female viewer has not-so-quietly been reasserting her power over the pocketbook—and the remote. Women control 73% of household spending, which translates to $4 trillion in annual discretionary spending, according to a report titled “Invest in Women, Invest in America,” issued in December by Congress’ Joint Economic Committee.

“Women are controlling household purse strings, so advertisers are willing to pay a premium to reach them,” says Kim Martin, president and general manager of two female-targeted women’s cable networks, WeTV and Wedding Central.

Now, some 27 years after Hearst TV and Disney launched Lifetime, the first network created just for women, a spate of TV suitors are banging down women’s doors. In fact, more programmers than ever are unapologetically pursuing female viewers. They are courting them with more varied options than ever. And it’s paying off.

“Women watch an enormous amount of television and are greater consumers of television than men are. They are also more open to variety,” says Nancy Dubuc, president and general manager of Lifetime Networks.

Consider some of the most recent entries specifically targeting women.

The team of Oprah Winfrey and Discovery last month debuted OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, where female viewers in particular can go “for inspiration and personal growth,” says David Gleason, OWN senior VP of research. “Those are the same reasons they come to The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Rainbow Media Networks in 2006 launched WeTV, which has since begun to focus on seminal moments in women’s lives. In 2009, Rainbow introduced Wedding Central.

Those networks join the market’s long-established players. Lifetime remains the country’s biggest network aimed at women, with nearly 100 million subscribers, and it has expanded to include Lifetime Movie Network and Lifetime Real Women.

Sixteen years after Lifetime debuted, Geraldine Laybourne partnered with Oprah Winfrey and the owners of Carsey-Werner—Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach—to launch Oxygen in 2000. NBC Universal bought Oxygen in 2007 and relaunched the network, which now upholds its “Live Out Loud” tagline with such signature shows as Bad Girls Club—a 180-degree departure from the fare Winfrey is now touting on OWN.

Building ‘Broad’ Hits (Yep, We Said It)

It’s not just with overt female-themed strategies and brands that TV executives are going after women’s attention. In addition to calling the shots when it comes to purchasing, the female viewer continues to be prized for her role in establishing broad TV hits.

Women collectively watch more television than men, making up 54% of the total television audience, according to Nielsen. Women also spend the most time watching television, with women 18-49 watching an average of 140 hours per month and women over 50 ratcheting that up to almost 200 hours.

So female appeal has proven an important factor for growing even the broadest of broadcasters, says Marcy Ross, executive VP of current programming at Fox Broadcasting, where three quite different series—Glee, House and Family Guy—all rank highly among women.

“Targeting women is the No. 1 priority here at Fox,” Ross says. “We have to cater to them and we have to program to them.”

“If women like it, the men will come,” Ross adds. “I think you can balance it so that everybody gets something.”

The Key to Understanding Women … It’s Still Their Feelings

One of the keys to attracting women, say programmers, is to give them characters and relationships in which to invest. It doesn’t matter whether women are watching an unscripted drama on Investigation Discovery, an unscripted soap or reality competition on Bravo or a crime procedural on CBS—compelling characters, complex relationships and emotion are almost always at the heart of female faves. That explains why soapy shows like ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and Private Practice remain some of television’s highest-rated among women.

“Women emotionally invest in their favorite television series and consider their favorite characters ‘family and friends,’” according to a recent report by Fox’s audience research division. “It’s not only entertaining for them; it’s cathartic. They want to ‘feel’ when they watch a show. They want to laugh or cry.” “

Whenever we’ve done focus groups or online polls, the one word that kept rising to the top in every conversation we had with women was relationships,” says Martin, who branded WeTV to focus specifically on unscripted programs that take place during important transitional periods in women’s lives: engagements, weddings, pregnancies, births. “We are putting those experiences on television in a relatable way. I think that women feel these kinds of shows respect their lives.”

This emotional connection to TV viewing is typically not true for men, says Dubuc, who has the unique task of overseeing both History Channel, which targets men, and Lifetime.

“Men like the facts, women like high drama,” Dubuc says. “Women watch for an emotional release, while men watch to get smarter.”

Women seek that “emotional release” across all TV genres—scripted, unscripted, drama, comedy, news and sports. But in the end, women need to feel invested in the characters and emotionally engaged in the story in order to come back week after week. Says Dubuc: “It really has to have emotion. If I had to pick out one word, that would be it.”

“Men want their stories to be authentic, they want a lot of information and they want nuts, bolts and details,” Dubuc adds. “Women want a lot more emotion, drama and highs and lows.”

“What I always say is that movies are all about the concept and television is all about the characters,” says Dawn Ostroff, The CW’s president of entertainment. “A movie just needs someone to be intrigued enough by the concept to walk in once and buy a ticket. TV has to bring people in week in and week out, and they have to fall in love or fascination with the characters. And women find themselves extremely invested in our characters in ways we can’t even describe. They are obsessed with these characters and relationships.”

Jiving With the Generations

While women across generations consistently seek out emotional connections and a connection with characters, the reality genre does representa dividing line between younger and older viewers. Younger audiences seek out and embrace the relatively new genre, much of which nowadays features troubled teens, glamorous Kardashians or catty housewives.

Basic cable’s top eight shows among women 18-34 are all unscripted: MTV’s Jersey Shore, MTV’s Teen Mom, E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians, MTV’s The Hills, MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, E!’s Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami, Bravo’s Real Housewives of New Jersey and MTV’s The City. A scripted show doesn’t enter the list until ABC Family’s Secret Life of the American Teenager, which is tied with AMC’s zombie thriller, The Walking Dead, for ninth place.

More than anything, the reality divide is a matter of what viewers are accustomed to. “Young people have grown up on reality programming in a way that older people haven’t,” says Michael Wright, executive VP and head of programming at TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies. “They grew up with Real World and Survivor, and now programmers have taken that form and evolved it. Viewers have been conditioned to get that cathartic experience from unscripted shows. Older viewers more often get it from scripted programming.”

Unscripted programming also often feels more authentic to younger viewers, say executives. “Authentic,” of course, is a buzzword of the day when talking about younger demographics.

On broadcast, the most female-focused network is The CW, which is one of the few places for advertisers to turn when they want to precisely target young women, an audience that is tough to capture. While older people might be happy with just turning on the TV and watching a show, younger audiences want to go to the show’s Website, check out the playlist, and chat online with their friends about it. And The CW also tries to stay on the cutting edge, so that its viewers are learning something about pop-culture trends while they watch.

“A lot of young women watch our shows the way they read magazines. They come to learn about fashion, music, technology,” says Ostroff. “It’s one-stop shopping. They are getting satisfaction from being entertained, while they are learning something culturally.”

Simply Put: Crime Pays

Shows about crime, in scripted and unscripted formats, have a clearly demonstrated draw among women, execs agree. “Women like to solve puzzles, and they like to learn something while they are being entertained,” says Henry Schleiff, president and general manager of Investigation Discovery and the Military Channel. Investigation Discovery targets women 25-54 with unscripted programming that focuses on crime and justice, while the Military Channel provides similarly targeted shows to men in that age group.

“Women are always saying that they have great intuition and they like to test their intuition with our stuff,” says Schleiff.

Entire cable networks have been built on the backs of off-net crime procedurals, such as CSI, NCIS and Law & Order.

“Our strategy going in six years ago was to find an original drama that would be compatible with our Law & Order audience,” Turner’s Wright says. “We found that with The Closer, and then we worked to build a foundation of programming around The Closer.”

Wright’s strategy yielded such shows as last summer’s hit Rizzoli & Isles (now basic cable’s top-rated show among women 25-54) as well as Leverage, Memphis Beat and Hawthorne.

“Now we are working to find new programming that’s relatable and accessible to TNT audiences, but also pushes beyond those boundaries,” says Wright. “We’re always looking for shows about the populist, everyman hero—shows that are designed to be relatable to our audience.”

For TNT and TBS, that hero may come in the form of the everyday guy, like the character Ray Romano portrays on TNT’s Men of a Certain Age.

Fox execs, too, are confident enough in their, um, femininity to admit a strong male lead can be the key to drawing a large female audience. That’s the idea behind Fox’s new show The Chicago Code, which tells the story of ! ghting corruption in both the city and in the police force that protects it. Says Ross: “I am obsessed right now with strong, heroic men.”