The grandmother of all these networks, of course, is A+E Networks’ Lifetime, which has been running original content for women since 1988 when it picked up The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd after an unceremonious cancellation by NBC. Lifetime has taken a completely opposite tack to the specialized one-genre-all-the-time approach that characterizes much of cable, and evp and gm Rob Sharenow says that’s by design. “We’re trying to be premium and popular, and I think a lot of the brands want to be popular, and so they’ll do anything to get ratings, and other brands want to be premium and get awards,” he says. “We’re trying to have our cake and eat it, too.”
Lifetime’s primary source of cake over the last few years has been the long-running series Army Wives, which completed its eighth and final season last year. The favorite to take its place is Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry’s guilty pleasure Devious Maids. But the net also is experimenting with genre programming via a new sci-fi series from Children of Men scribe Timothy J. Sexton called The Lottery, while it strives to move out of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? territory with its movies. Its adaptation of V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic pulled in 2 million viewers in its 25-54 target demo.
Ultimately, Lifetime provides a friendly environment for advertisers, which is crucial. “Reach and composition are things that our teams look at when they want to put their media buy together,” explains Jackie Kulesza, svp, group director of video at Starcom. “There’s also a context strategy that plays in. What content do you want to associate your brand with? It’s not just that you don’t want to associate your brand with X, it’s that people might be talking about that show in social media.” Positive buzz, well-developed and identifiable characters—all these can affect an advertiser’s interest in a show, with the usual caveats. Consumer brands targeted to women, as Kulesza points out, don’t want to be associated with anything too extreme.
That said, gratuitous sex, violence and anything else typically objectionable can be found when they’re in the biggest show on television. “[Clients] don’t want their consumers to come back and say, ‘I can’t believe you’d support that show with your product,’” says Kulesza’s colleague Darcy Bowe, vp, media director. “Sometimes there are shows that people avoid for lots of truly good reasons—but when they become a hit, you reconsider.” Take the gory The Walking Dead, which does great business among women across all demos and the restaurant category where it attracted a lot of business from no less a chewy, oozing-red-goo food purveyor than Pizza Hut.
Networks That Work for Women
Though it may not immediately come to mind when talking about women’s networks, ABC Family programs occupy five of the top 10 slots among women 12-34 (the net’s target demo) on cable. It also offers a pure audience composition. Its top show, Pretty Little Liars, skews 88 percent female and is behind only Grey’s Anatomy and Fox’s Glee and New Girl across all of scripted television. (The lowest any of the Family shows in the top-10 skew is 83 percent.)
Juergens says it’s important to program directly to your audience. Millennials aren’t interested in “trying out” a show for multiple episodes, or waiting around for someone compelling. “Kids who grew up on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel were so used to having programming aimed directly at them that they have an expectation of that, and that’s not going to change for them,” she says. “The world is going to change around them.”
Also, remember that millennial women don’t deviate from the mean in another important respect: They are extremely active on non-TV platforms. “Fifty percent to two-thirds of our viewers are watching [in a way that’s] not live, linear television,” says Juergens.
ID, too, is overdelivering women, and O’Sullivan’s job puts her over most of the female-skewing properties at Discovery (though the company is careful not to drive away curious guys who surf Animal Planet to watch kitten marathons on Too Cute when no one’s at home to see them do it). ID’s ratings have ballooned since it relaunched in 2008, making it an efficient CPM for advertisers and something of a headache for sales execs like O’Sullivan, who are chasing parity with similarly rated networks. “Sometimes [clients] have a reach goal that would mean buying broader to deliver a large female number,” Kulesza says. “There are a lot of sports properties, for example, that could make a very strong argument for reach. But if you’re comparing the price, the cost will look a little out of line.” And that’s frequently where the women’s networks come in.
The Kind of People You See On TV
While it’s true that many women like strong, complicated characters, that’s not true across the board. “Everyone’s been so shocked that [A&E’s] Duck Dynasty does so well, or [MTV’s] Teen Mom, but that’s America,” says Wintsch. “That’s who lives in this country and shops at Walmart. I get frustrated when people go, ‘Oh, it’s a train wreck.’ It’s not a train wreck. It’s people who look and act like them.” Every viewer is interested in behavior she recognizes, whether or not it’s commendable, as Wintsch sees it. “These teen moms don’t behave in great ways, but they’re raising kids at 16 years old, which takes a lot.”
To put it less charitably, The Real Housewives of wherever have more money than you, but you’re better than them. And sometimes, bad behavior is something a viewer is proud to associate with. “Duck Dynasty has its own butter—that’s how big that show is,” says Wintsch.
However one might define “quality” television, it is indisputable that there’s plenty out there right now. “It’s a very competitive landscape for networks that are going for reach,” says Kulesza. “Networks really have to be on their A game. In a way, it’s tough because there’s so much great stuff.”
So while the abundance of quality programming is great for viewers, it’s made every programmer’s life a lot harder.