Women Are Easy

Why TV Ad Agencies Take Female Viewers For Granted

For Madison Avenue and the TV networks, now is when the real money gets made. The fall schedules have just been released and agencies are buying ad time in a revenue-generating frenzy. This two-week spree is a period of such heady earnings that CBS president Leslie Moonves calls it "our lifeblood." This year was especially kind to TV execs. Advertisers were flush, thanks to the booming economy, and insiders estimate that TV stations could rake in a record $15 billion.

All that cash buys "eyeballs"—or viewers. But not all eyes are equal, at least not to the mavens of the marketing game. Networks charge far more for men's eyeballs than for women's, especially when it comes to prime-time shows. "This year, you could reach a thousand guys, 18 to 34, on a minute of network prime time, for 60 bucks," says Erwin Effron, a leading ad-industry researcher. "Women of the same age group would cost you $47."

This gender gap may seem unfair to women who were raised to believe "You've come a long way, baby." But it stems from the conventional ad-agency wisdom that women are easy. "More women watch television, and more are available in prime time," says Peter Chrisanthopoulos, president of broadcasting and programming at Ogilvy & Mather, "and that impacts on the cost to reach them."

If ad agencies begin with this shibboleth, programmers follow the same bouncing demographic ball. "Most entertainment shows are written with women in mind," says Chris Geraci, senior vice president for buying at BBDO. "So any time you have something young and male, it seems unique and more attractive. It's just not as easy to program for men."

The rule of thumb is that guys like sports, reality shows, and action movies, while women prefer comedy and drama. "A lot of what FOX does is obviously there to reach men," Geraci notes. "Many people consider Train Wrecks to be vulgar, but man, does it do its job." So does animation: King of the Hill, Futurama, and South Park all "do a fairly decent job of reaching men." Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its female lead, is brutal enough to bring in the boys (so much so that the network postponed its season finale last week because it involved violence at a high school).

James Hamilton, an economist and the author of Channeling Violence, argues that violent programming is part of a plan to attract male viewers, especially younger ones. Earlier this month, Hamilton told a congressional committee convened in the wake of Littleton that, "When Seinfeld dominated ratings, HBO had a strategy known internally as 'Testosterone Thursday,' in which it programmed low-quality violent films at 9 p.m. to attract male viewers." Today, FOX leads in the fight for males, a detail that hasn't been lost on the other networks, since commanding that market makes ad revenues soar.

"The fact is that there's more money chasing those rare male viewers," says one ad exec. Like his on-the-record colleagues, he insists that this emphasis on men is based on objective information about viewing and spending habits. But these stats don't tell the whole story.

"This is one of those industries where what you are studying has less to do with the truth than with the conventions of the business," says George Comstock, professor of communications at Syracuse University, whose exhaustive study, Television: What's On, Who's Watching, and What It Means, was published last month. These conventions include assumptions about what makes men and women tick that hark back to the era when men in gray flannel were the hidden persuaders.

Today's marketer or media buyer may well be a woman in Prada, reflecting the profound shift in gender roles that is also being acted out on the tube. The stay-at-home wife in Bewitched has been replaced by Buffy the weapon-wielding go-getter. But though the image of women is evolving, the economics of television remain wedded to an age when husbands controlled the purse strings and young men were the apple of the culture's eye.

This much is true: young women do watch more TV than their male peers—and they watch a much wider variety of shows, including violent ones meant to attract men. The ideal formula to entice young women as well as men is a bloodfest with a female lead. Buffy draws about seven men for every 10 women who watch. Women watch sports too: Monday Night Football grabs one woman for every two men. But most guys will run for the hills rather than watch a bad-hair makeover. Only three men tune in Oprah for every 10 women who do.

"TV is, after all, a group activity," says James Webster, a professor of communications at Northwestern University, "and along the lines that girls will play with GI Joes but boys don't play with Barbie, you find that women will watch what men want to watch."

And what men watch most, surprisingly enough, is other men. "We think one reason people are drawn to TV is the opportunity to compare themselves with others in terms of appearance and clothing—what psychologists call 'social comparison,"' says Comstock. "TV serves that purpose pretty well. Studies of eye contact with the screen show that people watch the same gender: females watch females, males watch males." Except, perhaps, when the comparison raises anxieties for male viewers. Gazing at an impossibly ripped Schwarznegger is one thing, but a parade of plausibly built lifeguards can be a painful reminder of missed gym days. In April, more women watched Baywatch than did men, suggesting that women may be more comfortable making comparisons between themselves and an ideal.

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