Study: What Women Want Depends On Character

All women are not created equal, at least when it comes to their sitcom-viewing habits. That—and the revelation that females can be as problematic a target as the now-infamous lost boys who shun broadcast viewing altogether—top-line the results of a study released last week by Oxygen Media and Grey Global Group’s MediaCom.

The study, conducted by Roper ASW, identifies five distinct groups of women whose tastes in TV comedy differ somewhat; as a result, each group finds only a limited number of sitcoms appealing. Though the occasional sitcom—NBC’s Friends, CBS’ Everybody Loves Raymond—attracts all the women’s groups in large measure, most other shows hover below a 5 rating in the 18-49 demo for both women and men.

The five segments identified by the study are “wholesome traditionalists,” who make up 14 percent of women ages 18-49; “family funsters” (19 percent); “quirky characters” (29 percent); “envelope pushers” (16 percent); and “smarty pants” (14 percent).

Wholesome traditionalists are predominantly conservative viewers who reject slapstick and humor that mocks a person’s physical appearance—their favorite sitcoms include WB’s Reba and ABC’s Life with Bonnie. Family funsters, mostly Democrats, find racy, sexual humor appealing—they tend to watch NBC’s Whoopi. Quirky characters are more liberal and overwhelmingly go for shows that feature over-the-top humor such as British import Absolutely Fabulous and NBC’s Will & Grace.

Envelope pushers also are liberal but favor mocking humor, sarcasm and jokes about sex—their favorites include MTV’s The Osbournes and Oxygen’s Girls Behaving Badly. Finally, the smarty pants, who like satire and spoofs, tend to watch shows such as Fox’s The Simpsons and HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Adding weight to the study is the fact that millions more women ages 18-49 watch sitcoms than men (except on Fox). With such a segmented audience, viewers may continue to abandon broadcast in favor of sitcoms on cable that are more targeted to their sensibilities (hence Oxygen’s involvement in the project.)

Kevin Reilly, president of prime-time development at NBC, said it would be a mistake to look at the study’s viewer segments and try to develop sitcoms tailored to each of them. The networks’ best bet, he noted, is to develop sitcoms that offer different access points for viewers with different sensibilities.

“In Cheers, for example, you had high-brow Frasier, beer-guzzling Norm, sarcastic Carla, and the relationship between Sam and Diane,” he said.

Reilly added that there is a more fundamental—and long-lamented—problem the networks must overcome if they are to avoid the pitfalls the study reveals (such as the fact that sitcoms do not attract a mass female audience). That problem is their “lack of inventiveness,” he said.

“The networks got away with putting on bland, formula sitcoms” for years, he said.

Shari Ann Brill, vp/director of programming at Carat, agreed. “I find what I say most times is a lot funnier than the lines I see on most sitcoms,” she said.