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From Social to Superheroes: Chasing the Elusive Female Viewer By Michele Shapiro
In the past year, programming executives at both broadcast and cable networks have done everything in their power to stop the defection of female viewers, many of whom now opt to watch what they want whenever they want it.
Researchers first began to detect a shift in female viewing patterns in 2013, when Nielsen briefly began including broadband-only homes in its rating sample. “I think it’s safe to attribute the declines we’re seeing in female viewers 18-49 to OTT services,” says Brad Adgate, Research Director, Horizon Media.
From a network standpoint, the bottom line is that however they’re getting their fix, women are watching. “The networks have been promoting that the audience of a show can increase when you add in streaming video and VOD as opposed to 10 years ago when there was just one way to watch,” says Adgate.
Still, with all the competition out there, things haven’t gotten any easier for the linear outlets. The growing number of OTT options have further splintered an already fragmented female viewership. But the news isn’t all bad. In fact, many networks interviewed for this report say that they beat their own expectations in terms of Upfront business and last season’s ratings.
In many cases, both broadcast and cable networks are trying to broaden their reach by producing series that appeal to both moms and millennials. In others, as is the case with Oxygen, the networks has rebranded to target millennials and only millennials.
That said, there’s a surprising amount in overlap in how broadcast and cable nets targeting women are going about it. Terms like “strong storytelling,” “star power,” “superheroes” and, of course, “social” roll off executives’ tongues, whether the source is plugging procedurals or puppets – er, make that muppets!
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When it comes to creating original programming that stands out from the pack, it’s all about the story. “With all the great technological advancements, the time energy and labor that goes into telling a story hasn’t really changed,” observes Marc Juris, President, WE tv. “It’s really a time-consuming endeavor.”
Discovery Communications-owned TLC goes right for the heartstrings in hopes of getting advertisers to loosen their purse-strings. “You know you’re going to see something that entertains, but you’re also going to feel something,” says Nancy Daniels, GM, TLC. “You’ll have that emotional connection whether it’s laughing or crying. All our shows have some heart at their core.” The network’s viewers love to love, whether falling for clothes (Love, Lust or Run) or a kindred spirit (Love at First Swipe).
Although Investigation Discovery is heavy on procedurals, ID’s GM Kevin Bennett says the network also plays to women’s emotional side. “Emotional storytelling is key to our success. We find new and unique ways to tell story, whether it’s a lighter tone as with our new series Death by Gossip, executive produced and hosted by Wendy Williams, or heavier, such as the special Behind Closed Doors, which looks at the unexpected victims of domestic violence in this country. We’ll let each story be told the way it’s meant to be told.”
For Oxygen, which rebranded last year in hopes of cornering the millennial market, its new programming focus is all about relationships. “We cover all aspects of a young woman’s relationships like the one she has with her family in shows like It Takes a Sister or Fix My Mom, or finding love online in Virtually in Love,” says Samantha Bloom, VP, Consumer Trade and Marketing. Even series on the network that don’t appear to be relationship-centric, such as the music-themed Sisterhood of Hip Hop is really about the characters empowering one another, says Bloom.
The same can be said of WE tv’s Braxton Family Values, which in its fifth season actually did its best ratings in the history of the series, Juris points out. “If you look at the Braxtons – or the other strong women on any of our shows – they take matters into their own hands.”
For these relationship-focused series, love comes first, then marriage. As every programmer knows, there’s nothing like a wedding to elicit tears – and high ratings. Hallmark Channel bore this theory out when it debuted a month-long “June Weddings” programming block this year, which included world premiere movies like Perfect Match and the primetime special Home and Family: Paige and Jason’s Dream Wedding. The three original premieres averaged a 1.7 HH Rtg and 1.738 million viewers. “We were surprised at how well it did,” says Bill Abbott, President and CEO of Crown Media Family Networks. “It was an eye-opener.” The network hopes to repeat its success next year.
Breakups also draw a crowd. Fans of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York City rode the “Ramonacoaster” along with series regular Ramona Singer after her divorce this season. And viewers felt for Kris Jenner after she was forced to split with husband Bruce (now Caitlin) on the E! Network mainstay Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Of course, with original scripted series in high demand these days, it was only a matter of time until someone developed a scripted series about reality TV. And the series, UnREAL, created by a former producer from ABC’s The Bachelor, definitely got people talking. “We’ve already renewed the series for a second season,” says Liz Gateley, EVP, Programming, Lifetime. “It has been a phenomenal addition to our portfolio and a game changer for us.”
Among the network’s core target demo, women 25-54, year-to-date Lifetime is up versus a year ago. In addition to delivering younger viewers, Gateley credits the series with “creatively and tonally broke new ground for us.” The amount of scripted programming on Lifetime’s schedule “ranks near the top among all basic cable networks and far exceeds that of any other women’s network,” says Gately.
In addition, Lifetime is focused on making content for women by women. “In fact, this year to date, 37% of our movie directors were women.” The network also recently launched Broad Focus, which Amy Baker, EVP, Ad Sales for Lifetime, LMN, and FYI, describes as “a new initiative to provide women with more opportunities to write, develop, produce and direct content for the network.” In doing so, the initiative will provide advertisers and marketers an opportunity to get involved both linearly and on multiple platforms.
When it comes to appealing to women’s emotions, a little comic relief goes a long way. Female comics like Mindy Kaling, whose cancelled Fox sitcom was picked up by Hulu, and Amy Schumer, whose Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer scored an Emmy for Best Variety Sketch Series last month. All eyes will be on former The Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee in January when she takes on the late-night boys’ club with her topical show Full Frontal on TBS.
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CBS has the upscale, educated female market cornered on Sunday nights with back-to-back serial dramas The Good Wife and Madam Secretary, and is hoping that Dianne Weist (Life in Pieces) and Jane Lynch (Angel From Hell) will have a similar appeal with viewers. “Serial dramas are first thing you look to to build strong female franchise,” says David Poltrack, Chief Research Officer, CBS Corporation and President, CBS Vision. “But we have a strong comedy franchise, too.” On Thursday nights, the network is looking to build a female-centric comedy block aroundthe Allison Janney comedy Mom, which Poltrack says performs well with “program passionate” female viewers – the educated, affluent ones coveted by advertisers.
To stand out, niche networks are also pulling out the big guns in terms of star power. ID, which had success with Momsters, hosted by Roseanne Barr last season, scored a coup when it got news legend Barbara Walters to host Barbara Walter Presents American Scandals, an exploration of real people whose wrongdoing once grabbed headlines. “We had the idea for doing a retrospective show,” recalls Bennett. “We said we would do it if Barbara would be interested in doing new interviews.” And she was. “This is Barbara at her finest. This isn’t her sitting back and taking it easy.”
Not to be outdone, other cablers also are seeing stars this season. On HGTV, for example, Ellen’s Design Challenge, has just wrapped season 2 of filming. But the decision to greenlight the series wasn’t a haphazard one. “In the case of Ellen DeGeneres, she really makes sense for us,” explains Kathleen Finch, president, HGTV and DIY. “Everyone loves her – young women, older women, men.” But what makes her special beyond that is that she has a real love for and expertise when it comes to design. “She’s a big fan of HGTV and authentically belongs on our air.”
Celebrity foodies Valerie Bertinelli, Tia Mowry and Trisha Yearwood have also added a dash of star power to Food Network and The Cooking Channel. And that’s not all, folks. Though Finch is coy about revealing too much before any contracts are signed, she hints that HGTV is in talks with “a very big sports star and his very famous actress wife to do something on the network next year.”
When it comes to star wattage, OWN has an advantage over other nets due to the built-in celebrity of Oprah Winfrey. And it’s been quite a year for O. If anything, her star has risen even more due to the box-office success of Selma and the national, sold-out “Oprah’s The Life You Want Weekend” tour. “OWN benefits from the halo effect of all things Oprah. So when there is a very large seismic event in her life, it raises awareness of both her and the network,” says Erik Logan, President, OWN.
But Oprah is far from the network’s only star. Tyler Perry, who in 2012 struck a production deal with the network to create scripted programming, has single-handedly brought millions of viewers to OWN in recent years. “Perry’s The Haves and Have Nots is a huge hit for us. We’re reaching over 3 million people nearly every single week,” says Logan.
Still, Linda Ong, CEO of TruthCo., a cultural branding and insights firm in New York City, insists that star power means something different today than it did in the past. “Celebs who are Instagram-famous or YouTube stars who could be people we know are famous for doing whatever they do. It’s no longer about ‘experts’ or ‘celebrities’ in the traditional sense,” says Ong.
These days, the only thing more satisfying for network execs than reeling in big-name talent (that often comes with a big price tag) is creating a celebrity. TLC did just that with Whitney Thor, the star of My Big Fat Fabulous Life. One of TLC’s development execs found Whitney online, where she had been posting Fat Girl Dancing videos. “She’s very open about her weight-loss struggle,” says Daniels. “It’s just so inspiring to see how she’s connecting with women and they with her. That’s a big win for us.”
WE tv’s Juris agrees that star power’s no longer all about name recognition. “A star is someone people immediately connect with on-screen. It’s not somebody who has a higher Q score than someone else.” Juris pinpoints Mushiya, one of four salon owners featured in Cutting It in the Atl, as an example of someone with whom the network’s viewers immediately resonate. “She’s so authentic, yet different from other personalities you have seen on TV before.”
Of course, even a modern-day star is nothing without a good story. “We’ve seen many, many stars come on the air with huge YouTube followings,” says Juris. “But if the platform is not right, the story isn’t right, the context isn’t right, that show will disappear.”
In the case of the Scripps networks, particularly HGTV and Food Network, which are among the top 5 in all cable networks for women, it’s often less about name recognition and more about holding a mirror up to the networks’ educated, upscale viewers. “Our viewers love to see themselves reflected on the network,” observes HGTV and DIY’s Finch. “Someone very successful like Joanna Gaines from Fixer Upper or Christina El Moussa from Flip or Flop allows them this opportunity.”
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Above all else these days, it takes an inherent understanding of social media to sustain female viewers’ passion about a series. “Shows that do well understand that it’s a conduit for relationship, not just another means of communication,” says TruthCo.’s Ong. “Women are wired for relationships, and social media has become a medium to convey love and admiration for a show or product – a forum for expressing emotion – which is why women love it.”
While Twitter tends to be more male-skewing than some of the other social media platforms such as Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, Nielsen numbers reveal that among the top-10 most tweeted-about series are many that target women including The Bachelor (#2), Empire (#5), Scandal (#6), Pretty Little Liars (#7) and Dancing with the Stars (#10), which also happens to be the #1 rated show with women in prime time, according to Nielsen. (Adgate racks up ABC’s strong female viewership to the fact that they rarely air sports programming in prime time.)
Evelyn Lozada, the star of OWN’s Livin’ Lozada, is heavily active on social media and Logan believes that connection to her audience has played a big part in the show’s popularity. “Throughout its development, and certainly leading up to the launch, how we leveraged her social media footprint was paramount. We knew we had to activate that base. It was very strategic from that perspective.”
Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk were once TV fixtures, but in the decades that followed most comic book fans had to head to the multiplex to get their superhero fix. Not anymore. After the success of shows like Arrow and The Flash on the CW, the millennial-favoring network’s co-owner, CBS Corporation, has decided to try its hand at the genre with Supergirl.
“We’re targeting the millennial audience. But I don’t think we have to make shows just for millennials. We also want to capture the 35-plus female audience,” says CBS’s Poltrack. Which is why the network cast former Ally McBeal star Calista Flockhart. “The series is unique in that it may have a broader appeal. It’s a story of a young women in the business world who has superpowers, but older viewers grew up on Superman movies.”
This balance is necessary, since boomers have the most disposable income, but it’s important for both networks and advertisers to win over millennials in order to succeed in the long run. “Millennials have a longer lifetime value than older viewers,” says Horizon Media’s Adgate. “Advertisers want to get them hooked on a brand to get them into their store or showroom. You hope a 25-year-old will be brand loyal, and will continue to buy for next 50-60 years.” And yet, because they are “a fluid demo,” says Adgate, they’re difficult to reach, and it may seem to some that it takes superhuman powers to reach them.
Supergirl isn’t the only strong female character on TV this season. Across the board, there are more empowered female characters that depict women as they are today. Horizon’s Adgate believes female characters on many new scripted series across the board accurately reflect the roles women play in real life. “They’re presidential advisors, law professors. If look at the American home, there are more women in college today than men. They’re the main breadwinner in more than a third of dual-income homes.” Now that’s super-powerful.
Most networks (broadcast and cable) have made at least one attempt to bring younger viewers on board in the past year, with varying degrees of success.
With series like Rachael Ray’s Kids Cook-Off, Kids Baking Championship and Camp Cutthroat, the Food Network has done an admirable job of getting parents to watch with their kids, which Jon Steinfauf, EVP, Sales and Marketing, Scripps Networks Interactive, says is appealing to advertisers. “What we’re finding with these types of shows is we are getting a lot of parents watching with kids under 17, and that’s very attractive to advertisers.” Steinfauf adds that the network just signed three different movie studios (Sony, Disney, and Fox) to do integrations into some of these “kids”’ shows. “This is something we’re seeing that’s new and it’s attracting some different demographics, too,” he says.
Lifetime’s going a similar route by introducing Project Runway Junior this season. “We anticipate the series will increase co-viewing to further lower our median age while retaining Project Runway’s upscale audience,” says Lifetime’s Baker. “Based on the franchise’s strong track record, buyers are embracing this new show.”
In the crowded TV landscape, it’s all about standing out. “For the last 20 years of TV, people have succeeded by copying. You can’t do that anymore,” says TruthCo.’s Linda Ong. “Visionaries are coming up through the system. The last thing women- or any viewers – want is something they’ve seen before.”
Programmers aren’t the only ones getting creative. Advertisers are also coloring outside the lines, joining forces with networks to provide a seamless experience for viewers. (Commercial? What commercial?) “For advertisers, the traditional 30 second spot is going to become increasingly harder for viewers to digest,” observes Ong.
As a result, networks are joining forces with advertisers on producing high-quality multiplatform content. This year OWN worked with IKEA on Create Your Space, a custom program across TV, digital and print. “Content we can create with partners that entertains our audience while also educating them on their brand messaging is a gold standard we have set for ourselves,” says Kate Mitchell, VP, Ad Sales for OWN. In addition, Home Made Simple, the home improvement series that the network co-produces with P&G had its highest rated season this year, and also won a Daytime Emmy.
Advertisers want to be where the eyeballs are, and while Nielsen and other trade associations are working feverishly to capture that data, the Upfronts used to be when deals were struck, this year many took a wait-and-see approach. “Advertisers are at times taking a step back and seeing where’s my target audience – how can I best reach them? This is a very transitional phase,” says Horizon Media’s Adgate.
But not all cable networks experienced downturns at this year’s Upfronts, proving there is still room for growth. “We were very pleased with ID’s Upfront,” says Sharon O’Sullivan, EVP, National Ad Sales, ID and TLC. ID brought on new advertisers in a wide variety of categories, including home improvement, mobile communications, and retail. “We also saw a significant lift in spending from existing clients including those in the dinein and QSR categories and pharma,” O’Sullivan adds.
The Scripps networks have also seen growth in certain categories, including pharmaceutical, automotive, retail and e-tail. “A lot of the e-tailers like Wayfair, Overstock and Zillo are internet-based companies that have very sophisticated metrics to measure the effects of advertising,” explains Scripps’ Steinfauf. “So they can tell pretty quickly when an ad, sponsorship or integration runs what kind of clickthroughs they get to their websites or social media.”
Steinfauf adds that this year’s upfront may have been the first that fully captured the importance of data and analytics as a determinant in how ad dollars are spent. “It’s really not just looking at a network or day part, but all the way down to specific shows.”
OWN’s Mitchell says the network has been successful in breaking into the technology category. “Amazon came on as a major partner this year across all Oprah media platforms, and technology will continue to be a focus for the network moving forward.”
There’s no shortage of advertisers, says TLC’s Daniels. “What we see is a need for media to be very much in step with advertisers’ timing and needs, and to understand how to partner with them better.”
Roberta Caploe: Associate Publisher @robertacaploe
Diane K Schwartz: Senior Vice President, Media Communications Group
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