Programming

COVER STORY: Girl Power!

Now More than Ever, Women Are Dominating Screens Big and Small 4/20/2008 06:02:00 PM Eastern

Women rule -- at least in the eye of the camera.

Girl Power!

At the box office, the movie Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds grossed $65.1 million domestically ($31 million in three days), and Oscar-honored teen-pregnancy movie Juno, which cost a low-budget $7.5 million to make, took in a blockbuster $143 million domestically for Fox Searchlight. At the end of May, New Line will bring back HBO’s wildly popular Carrie Bradshaw and her gal pals in Sex and the City: The Movie. Behind the screen, five of the 10 Academy Award-nominated scripts were written or co-written by women, said Hollywood script consultant Linda Seger, author of When Women Call the Shots.

Some of the Web’s hottest sites at the moment include female-oriented and female-run sites. Chasing The Huffington Post, a political site started by Arianna Huffington, are Yahoo’s Shine, with 40 million women visitors, and independent site WOWOWOW, from a group including ad guru Mary Wells, actress Candice Bergen, gossip columnist Liz Smith and HBO’s Sheila Nevins, among others.

But no medium has fallen for females quite like the TV screen has lately. “There’s been an explosion in female-centered drama series, something virtually unheard of before in the ’90s, including an almost completely new genre, female-centered action,” said Tim Havens, a communications professor at the University of Iowa. “The new Bionic Woman, Alias and Xena: Warrior Princess have all expanded the diversity of roles for women and the kinds of stories that TV tells about women.”

Not to mention Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and the female leads of Heroes and Lost.

Now more than ever, women are dominating screens big and small, in part because of more earning power and better career opportunities, which are having a dramatic effect on what women watch, what they consume and how they’re addressed by advertisers.

“It’s difficult to find a category that isn’t obsessed with women right now,” said Mary Lou Quinlan, founder and CEO of marketing shop Just Ask a Woman, “whether it’s young moms or boomer women. We started our company nine years ago and people said, ‘Why focus on a niche?’ It’s amazing how it’s expanded beyond female categories to Best Buy and Sony.”

This season,Gossip Girl,Cashmere Mafiaand Lipstick Jungle jostled for viewers against an extraordinary number of female detectives (Women’s Murder Club), doctors (Grey’s Anatomy), forensic scientists (CSI, Bones) and lawyers (TheCloser).

Even the less career-oriented women on Desperate Housewives and Bravo’s The Real Housewives franchise continue to deliver big ratings. In syndication, too, women dominate talk, cooking and even court genres, whether it’s Ellen, Martha, Oprah or Judge Judy.

MEN: FICKLE, UNDEPENDABLE

It’s hardly a secret that television is a women’s medium. On average, more women (52.3 million) watch television than men (44.5 million), and they watch more of it. Still, recent ratings revealed that women more strongly influence the medium than previously thought.

Nielsen Media Research conducted analysis of the broadcast networks to see just how far they skew female. Every broadcast network has more female viewers than male, with the exception of TV Azteca and TeleFutura. While CBS drew the highest number of women in the 18-plus demographic -- an average of 5.8 million females during primetime last season (live-plus-same-day viewers) against only 3.8 million men -- ABC’s average female audience is almost double that of men: 4.9 million versus 2.5 million.

ABC’s huge female audience, born of its decision to give up Monday Night Football in 2005, might lead one to conclude that the network made a decision to pursue the fairer sex. “I don’t think the entertainment division said, ‘Let’s skew women,’” said Larry Hyams, vice president of audience analysis at ABC. He added that ABC simply started catering to the gender that was already showing up in droves for Desperate Housewives and Grey’s.

“The shows that tended to work on ABC were the ones that appealed to women,” he said. “It’s easier to hold on to viewers than attract them with new programming. So if you watched Grey’s Anatomy, then you’re more likely to watch Private Practice.”

Cutting the data a different way showed that the top-rated shows for women draw far more viewers than the top shows for men. According to Nielsen, the top-rated, regularly scheduled show for men is NBC’s Sunday Night Football, which drew on average 9.4 million male viewers over 18. That’s still almost 6 million fewer than the top show for women, American Idol-Tuesday, which drew, on average, 15.1 million women viewers in the same age group. (The data are based on live-plus-same-day ratings, season-to-date through April 6, 2008.)

Indeed, the broadcast business could not survive without catering aggressively to women’s tastes. Perhaps that’s one reason why NBC Universal snapped up Oxygen Media for $925 million last year, after paying $600 million for iVillage in 2006.

“Men are just not dependable core viewers. They’re very fickle,” said Alan Wurtzel, NBCU’s president of research and media development. “Women are much more open and willing to commit to programs.” He sees women viewers as the backbone of any broadcast-network schedule. Women, who make up 52% of the population, watch 40 minutes more primetime television than men in any week: 8 hours and 50 minutes per week compared with men’s 8 hours and 10 minutes.

One big reason why advertisers are eager to reach women is that research shows that women as the biggest decision-makers in a home. Women make up 46% of the labor force with the majority, 51%, in high-paying management, professional and related occupations such as financial managers and education administrators, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Surprisingly, more than 80% of women said they’re the major decision-makers when it comes to buying a new HDTV set, according to separate surveys conducted by women-focused cable channels Lifetime Television and Oxygen -- a shocker considering men’s obsession with electronics and gadgetry.

The empowered woman is becoming a fixation for advertisers. Holly Buchanan, co-author of The Soccer Mom Myth: Today’s Female Consumer, Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys, praised a new category of advertising that speaks to the empowered female. She described marketers who are seeking to go beyond the stereotypical “do it in pink” strategy for targeting women.

Buchanan singled out a Lincoln Financial Group ad that featured a retired woman, Gloria, looking after her own finances, while an ad for Logitech Webcams showed a businesswoman on the road conferencing Dad at home with the kids. “It’s really a trend that I’m seeing,” said Buchanan, a senior persuasion architect at New York ad agency Future Now.

It’s no accident that packaged goods firm Procter & Gamble, whose products are largely directed at women, spent $2.3 billion on television, almost one-half of its total ad spend of $4.9 billion, in 2006. The company has ranked as the No. 1 or 2 advertiser in the nation for 50 of the past 52 years, according to Advertising Age data.

The trend toward more women-oriented fare is having an effect on how TV is consumed. Lifetime Networks’ own research guru, executive VP Mike Greco, suggested that some men are abandoning women to their own shows. Men are much less willing to watch a female-oriented show than vice versa. “Among the top 25 shows, 62% of women are viewing shows alone,” he added. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to watch video-on-demand than women, according to research firm Rentrak.

TV advertising is still sold on the basis of gender and age, but that’s changing as both buyers and sellers turn toward newer currencies, such as engagement metrics or commercial ratings. But even here, women are much more “engaged” in advertising, even in traditionally male-oriented categories.

Brand Keys is an advertising consultancy that studies consumer loyalty and engagement with products advertised on TV. The agency’s Brand to Media Survey 2007 showed that ads for airlines, cell phones, insurance and investment services engage women in greater numbers than men. Ads for electronics, pizza and beer showed men to be more engaged than women.

TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT

Separately, the study also showed that the majority of women are much more highly engaged with the evening news than in news shows in the morning, perhaps reflecting their role as chief organizer during the earlier hours. “Advertisers do know where to locate targets,” Brand Keys founder and president Robert Passikoff said. “It’s important to understand whether the TV is an engaging mechanism or not.”

For women, it is clearly the glue that binds their leisure time and social interactions. A browse of the newsstands shows an insatiable reader desire to connect with the lives of female TV stars.

Helen Katz, senior VP and director of research at Starcom MediaVest Group, explained how simple gender and age will become less important to advertisers eager to get more behavioral data as the media landscape evolves. “As we move toward addressable advertising, it won’t be women age 25-54, it will be women with young children, who shop at a certain store and take part in certain activities,” she said. For now, though, there’s never been a better time to be a woman watching TV.

SIDEBAR: Co-Viewing: No More Fights Over the Remote

With a full 20% of homes now owning a digital-video recorder, a strange thing is happening in the living room: More couples are watching TV together, and fewer are fighting over the remote control. Nielsen senior VP of planning policy and analysis Pat McDonough suggested that co-viewing may be gradually reversing a long-running fragmentation trend.

“It’s like appointment TV; when people play back later, they’re together,” she said. McDonough added that if she’s watching her favorite shows, like Desperate Housewives, live, she’s much more likely to be watching them alone.

TiVo’s Todd Juenger, VP of audience research, backed up the argument that co-viewing is on the rise as a result of time shifting. “In the halls here, we joke about how many marriages TiVo has saved … You used to have to fight over what to watch. You still have to choose who watches first, but you don’t have to go into a separate room. It is a great compromising vehicle.”

Duane Varan, a well-known TV researcher at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, oversees a living room fashioned as a laboratory that receives thousands of TV viewers who act as guinea pigs. Varan’s work involves measuring responses to TV shows or commercials through such methods as galvanic skin response (or how much a person sweats) or a viewer’s eye movements and heart rate.

“Our research shows that new technology actually helps to accommodate the gender difference,” Varan said. “It’s good news for the battle of the sexes.” The television can be paused momentarily while discussions are finished, and other distractions don’t have to wait until commercial breaks, he suggested.

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