How to Pick Up Women


Freud spent his career trying – in vain – to figure out what women want.

Nowadays, the answer to that question could prove pretty simple: Get over the battle for the remote control by giving women their own digital video recording system plus uninterrupted time to enjoy their own virtual television network packed with their favorite shows and movies.

Of course, they also want (and deserve) equal-if-not-better pay, unlimited opportunities and the freedom to do whatever they damn well please. But relaxing with great entertainment is at least something to look forward to at the end of a crazy day.

Thanks to women-oriented networks and a wealth of female-savvy programming across cable, women can find something worth watching pretty much anytime they please. Still, figuring out what they want to watch is no easy task. Just ask Barbara Fisher, EVP of programming for Lifetime, who grapples with Freud’s conundrum every waking minute of her day.

“You can’t pigeonhole women’s programming,” she says. “You need a wide range and a healthy mix, because women like a mix of things. You can’t say ‘women like this but they don’t like that.’ They like different tones, they like mysteries, they like humor, they like scary stuff – there’s no rule book.”

Women viewers’ refusal to be pigeonholed may be a key factor in the struggles of televised women’s sports. The WNBA basketball league and the WUSA soccer league have failed to get women to support them either in person or on television, leading to renewed rumors of impending doom.

The trick in winning women viewers, as TV’s first women-targeted network learned through nearly two decades in business, is to not try to be all things to all women. Lifetime’s goal is to stay on-brand and win viewers’ trust so they remain loyal.

“More networks are going after women than ever before,” Fisher notes. “Broadcast networks have been targeting women for some time now, and there are more female-centric dramas on other networks. But we believe we have a sure, steady consistency in our audience. So even if our audiences are sampling other things, they do tend to come back to us or at the very least they do want to know what we’re doing. And it’s up to us to give them something worth watching.”

Lifetime’s strategy to attract women to a new night appears to be paying off. The Aug. 2 premieres of its new Saturday night block of original one-hour dramas, 1-800-MISSING and Wild Card, attracted nearly 15 million viewers.

1-800-MISSING, based on a series of best-selling novels and starring former ER star Gloria Reuben, did particularly well. Its debut was the most-watched premiere in the network’s history (Wild Card is third on that list) and the most-watched basic cable drama premiere this year for women 18 and older. Stunt casting of Los Angeles Laker Rick Fox as Reuben’s romantic interest for a five-episode story arc should keep them coming back.

Opening up a new night became a necessity when Lifetime’s Sunday night dramas began slipping in the ratings more than a year ago, with women jumping ship to such shows as Sex and the City on HBO. Research showed that women were underserved in prime time on Saturdays, so armed with an $800 million programming budget to see her over the next couple of years, Fisher tapped her two new procedural crime dramas from a shortlist of pilots she revealed at the network’s upfront this past spring.

“We were looking for new areas, new franchises and new types of characters,” Fisher says. “Everything we do that seems to do well deals with relationships and has some sort of emotional quotient. That’s what seems to resonate with women.”

Armed with a new tag line – “Live, Love, Laugh” – WE: Women’s Entertainment has been engaging women this summer with new series such as its Summer of Style specials, the She House Cinema block on Friday nights (a build-your-dream-home promotion that wraps up next month) and new episodes of its original unscripted dating show Single in the City.

The network is on a roll, despite recently revealed accounting scandals and executive dismissals – including its top executive, AMC Networks president Kate McEnroe. Since rebranding from Romance Classics in January 2001, WE has doubled its subscriber base and is now in 52 million homes; it’s also gone from a single advertiser (Johnson & Johnson) to more than 85.

It plans to keep that momentum going this fall with programming highlights including the return of its popular biography series, When I Was a Girl, running Sundays in September with profiles of stars such as Jamie Lee Curtis, Ashanti and Tori Amos. Its new season kicks off Sept. 7 with a tribute to Casa de Los Babys, from sister company IFC Films, featuring stars from the film such as Marcia Gay Harden and Rita Moreno, followed by a behind-the-scenes look at the film’s production.

Starting Oct. 22, WE adds a Wednesday night block of originals with three new shows, designed to appeal to its target demo of women 25 to 54, says the network’s VP of program planning Elizabeth Doree.

First up is Mix It Up, a series executive produced by Friends star Courteney Cox and husband David Arquette that helps design-crossed duos merge their styles with the aid of an interior designer. It’s followed by a 13-part reality series Diva Detectives (described as a real-life Charlie’s Angels) and the first regular series commitment to Single in…, which previously featured eight-part specials such as this summer’s Single in the City.

The network is also excited about its first original film, with two more features slated for next year. Between Strangers, starring Sophia Loren, Mira Sorvino, Gerard Depardieu and Malcolm McDowell, is being celebrated with a commercial-free premiere on Oct. 5. The 100th film for Loren, it is also directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti.

Oxygen is also getting into the feature film business with its first original movie, A Tale of Two Wives, slated for Oct. 11. Starring Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines and The O.C.’s Peter Gallagher, the feature kicks off what is planned to be a quarterly commitment to original movies.

The women-owned and -operated network aims to distinguish itself from the competition by being ballsier and irreverent; or as Oxygen chairman and CEO Gerry Laybourne puts it, “smart and funny, slightly naughty and fun.” That’s helped it attract more young women, with the age of its average viewer dropping from 47 to 42 last year, or younger (and $10,000 better paid) than the average viewer at Lifetime and WE, according to a Nielsen comparison of the networks’ respective second quarters. What’s more, Oxygen says its viewers are fun-loving, sharp career women who are early adopters of technology.

While Lifetime is still more widely available at 86 million homes, Oxygen is on track to be in 50 million homes by the end of this year. Sixty percent of its primetime lineup will be original this fall, with a new night of original programming on Friday nights kicking off on Oct. 17, including Girls Behaving Badly and its sassy animated series Hey Monie and Life’s a Bitch. Talk Sex With Sue Johanson (the Canadian grandmother-turned-sex educator whose breakout relationship show has been a buzz-builder for Oxygen) and The Ellen DeGeneres Show cap the Friday night block.

“When you’re building something from scratch, it’s a very iterative process,” says Laybourne. “You have to find your voice, and sometimes you have to go too earnest or too silly before you find the sweet spot of what’s going to work.”

Attracting more notice through Dale “I want my MTV” Pon’s cheeky Oh! ad campaign – with endorsements from Madonna and other celebs – and increased distribution, Laybourne is also excited about two original series coming to the network. Sexual Anthropology follows a divorced male professor’s quest for romance while Show Me Yours features two Ph.D.s (one male, one female) trying to figure out what both sexes really want. It’s also bringing viewers new episodes of originals such as Oprah After the Show and The Isaac Mizrahi Show, plus new episodes of audacious British comedy Absolutely Fabulous coproduced with the BBC.

The first television format dedicated to luring women – soap operas – is also giving a female-driven boost to the Disney-owned network, SoapNet. SVP and general manager Deborah Blackwell says SoapNet’s audience is also skewing younger.

“We are quite a bit younger than many of our competitors,” says Blackwell, who notes that SoapNet’s audience is about 80% comprised of (primarily working) women. “In July, for example, our median age for women during prime time was 42 years old, while Lifetime’s median age was 52 years old during prime. We skewed ten years younger than Lifetime, nine years younger than WE and six years younger than both Lifetime Movie Network and Oxygen. The median age during prime for NBC in July, in comparison, was 45, and 51 for CBS.”

Blackwell also points to another important Nielsen indicator, length of tune-in. In July, adults 18 to 49 watched the network an average of 29 consecutive minutes in prime, the No. 1 finish for the fifth consecutive month for all networks, cable or broadcast. Lifetime was second, with 23.9 minutes, while Sci Fi placed third with 21.5 minutes, according to Nielsen. SoapNet’s median household income was $56,000 for June prime time, higher than Lifetime ($35,000), Lifetime Movie Network ($38,000), WE ($45,000) and Oxygen ($50,000).

“At our early stage of development it’s a very strong showing,” she notes. “Our fast growth [now in 32 million homes] may also be depressing our ratings, because we’re constantly launching in new cities so we may get a zero rating until local viewers know we’re there. We believe when we’re more widely distributed we’ll have even stronger ratings than we have now.”

Blackwell hopes to boost SoapNet’s top ten ranking in prime time – it was No. 7 among women 18 to 49 for basic cable in July – with new programming strategies now under way. Starting today (Aug. 25), the network is running a series of originally produced interstitials dubbed One Minute Soaps; the mini-soaps kick off with Dating Doogie and Wannabes, airing in the 8 p.m. block.

She’s been shaking off any notions that SoapNet is a prime-time repurposing vehicle for each day’s ABC soap operas with acquisitions such as non-ABC soap Another World, Dynasty and Dallas. Larry Hagman is also appearing in a new image campaign to promote SoapNet’s launch of Dallas on Sept. 8, with Joan Collins helping promote Dynasty this fall.

“We’re having fun and exploring our genre with new ideas for our viewers and our advertisers,” Blackwell says. “We want to innovate and keep viewers coming back for more.”

COPYRIGHT 2003 Copyright by Media Central Inc., A PRIMEDIA Company. All rights reserved.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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