What Women Watch on TV

Their viewing habits may surprise you

In last season’s premiere of FX’s American Horror Story, two teenagers are lying on the bed, nervously making out. “I don’t want to hurt you,” says the boy, moments before having a seizure, bleeding profusely from his eyes, nose and mouth, and then dying. If viewers were hoping for a respite from the race-hate charged torture sequence that immediately preceded the scene, they didn’t get it. What kind of show is this? Call it television for women.

First, some data. On cable, AHS: Coven was the most popular series in the two most vital female demos—the 18-49 “dollar demo” (2.6 million live-plus-7 viewers, meaning many ad-valued moms liked it) and 12-34 (1.8 million, meaning that teens, who are far less likely to watch TV, liked it). The show skews female, with women comprising 59 percent of its viewership. After that, the most popular scripted series on cable were dramas about zombies (AMC’s The Walking Dead, 1.9 million) and biker gangs (FX’s Sons of Anarchy, 1.2 million) and, of course, murdered high schoolers (ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, 1.3 million).

It turns out that the revolution in cable that gave rise to testosteriffic dramas like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men has been plenty good to women, too. The cast of AHS: Coven is mostly female, and Katey Sagal plays arguably the most interesting character on the show in Sons of Anarchy. The Walking Dead has Michonne, played by Danai Gurira, an award-winning playwright. Television is, after a long time, a place to find women who are accomplished on their own terms.

“Even sci-fi has changed,” says Katherine Wintsch of consultancy The Mom Complex. “When you look at Game of Thrones or American Horror Story, it’s a whole new [world] that’s opened up for female characters.” And there are huge, female-dominated fandoms for series like BBC America’s Doctor Who and PBS’ Sherlock—both bastions of male nerdery.

Other genres have also changed to accommodate women. “You have female characters in political shows: Julia Louis-Dreyfus in [HBO’s] Veep, Olivia Pope [Kerry Washington] in [ABC’s] Scandal,” says Wintsch.

On the broadcast front, Scandal and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy dominate the landscape alongside football and the music competition juggernauts NBC’s The Voice and Fox’s American Idol, as well as CBS’ ubiquitous The Big Bang Theory. Wintsch says she thinks the scripted series that hit with women manage to convey nuances men don’t necessarily get. “I feel like my husband watches [Pope] and his only comment every weekend is, ‘She’s such a slut,’” Wintsch says. “And I watch it and I think ‘She’s so broken, she’s so flawed, and that’s why she’s looking for love with these men.’”

Purchasing power

Part of the reason so much is available to women now as opposed to a decade ago is simply that as viewership has fragmented still further, men have become less important to advertisers who want to reach viewers with control over disposable income. (According to the Boston Consulting Group, women control or influence 73 percent of all household purchases.)

Another factor: The recovery from the recession is benefiting women more than men. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that as of four months ago, women had recovered all jobs lost and were beginning to make up for lost time while men were still 2.1 million jobs short. “Women control the family finances and are weighing in increasingly heavily with their own finances,” says Kate Juergens, evp, original programming and development and chief creative officer of ABC Family. “They make all the major purchasing decisions and control the TV dial a lot of the time, except for sports events. More college graduating classes [are made up mostly of] women. More law school applicants are women.”

With cable networks having proliferated since the ’90s, the rise of the female network seemed inevitable—among them, Bravo, TLC, We and OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. But the evolution of the market suggests a different fait accompli: the obsolescence of the female network. After all, if all of TV is for women, why ghettoize them?

Women’s TV execs are, naturally, quick to defend their turf. At a women’s network, “you’re speaking more directly to them and to their passions,” says Sharon O’Sullivan, evp, ad sales at Discovery Communications, where she oversees networks including female-skewing ID, TLC and Animal Planet. “The average length of tune on ID [which is heavily female] is 51 minutes.” (That’s very high.)

But there can be problems, O’Sullivan admits—many of them stemming from knowing what women you’re trying to reach and how they’ll react to your programming. “We had a series last year called Sin City Rules [on TLC],” O’Sullivan recalls. “That was a group of women in Las Vegas on a trip who were put together in a somewhat contrived environment. It was not as authentic as our viewers expect.” The show was canceled after five low-rated episodes—an oddity on cable, where series usually get to finish at least one season.

O’Sullivan says it was a learning experience. “What we realized from that show failing on our air was that that’s not what we’re here for,” she says. Accordingly, TLC is working to improve its brand—expect to see the signature red door open for the first time—and it’s eschewing the ginned-up (sometimes literally) drama that characterizes other reality shows that might work in a different environment in favor of less obviously contrived shows. “You can evolve your brand, but the consumer also has an expectation of it,” she adds.




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.