Women and Television

The advent of digital channels and the proliferation of specialty nets on cable are two recent phenomenons that have revolutionized television. As we near the millennium, however, another seismic shift is being created concerning a group historically overlooked by advertisers -...
September 1, 1999

The advent of digital channels and the proliferation of specialty nets on cable are two recent phenomenons that have revolutionized television. As we near the millennium, however, another seismic shift is being created concerning a group historically overlooked by advertisers – women, and their presence as a hugely influential marketing demographic.

While North American cable channels such as ESPN, the Sci-Fi Channel and the Golf Channel will undoubtedly continue to profit by appealing to their largely male demographic, there is now room in the terrestrial, cable, satellite and digital universe for channels to not only expand their existing slate of women’s programming, but to exclusively offer lifestyle-oriented fare aimed at female viewers. One such newcomer on the women’s programming scene is U.S.-based specialty Oxygen – an upcoming launch which has not only firmed up the U.S. toehold on the women’s market, but which provides a clear indication that it is a market believed to be increasingly lucrative for advertisers.


No one knows this changing focus towards women’s-oriented programming better than Elaine Ali, president of Winnipeg-based Women’s Television Network (WTN), which is, according to the channel, Canada’s leading specialty among women. The 24-hour channel, which began broadcasting in January 1995, currently has over 5.4 million subscribers, a high figure considering just over 8 million Canadian homes are available to the channel through cable.

Ali is the first to admit that WTN’s battle for viewers hasn’t been easy, but feels the creation of the channel was a definite necessity. ‘After doing a lot of research across Canada. . . [the founders] became convinced that the target audience wanted something from television that they weren’t getting,’ Ali explains, adding that the increase in women’s programming was no surprise given the changing demands of the marketplace. ‘There’s a recognition by sponsors and advertisers about the decision-making power and the buying power of a certain niche, which for the last couple of years. . . has been women,’ she says. ‘There’s nothing magical or sinister about a women’s channel. Women’s magazines have known about this market for ages.’

This recognition, fuelled by statistics that point to women as primary purchasing agents and controllers of spending within a household, increased rapidly in the ’80s and ’90s as women continued to establish their place in a TV industry increasingly concerned with tapping into new, profitable markets. With its mix of 70% information and 30% entertainment programming, WTN hopes to capitalize on the growing trend. After all, says Ali, ‘it is content in the end that leads to viewers, and it’s viewers that lead to success…’

WTN commissions programs from Canadian prodcos, and acquires programming from a host of sources worldwide, including Lifetime, the BBC, Carlton International and Granada. With a mandate that 70% of its schedule must be Canadian, wtn offers projects including Beyond Medicine, a 13 x 30-minute series (produced by Regina’s Partners in Motion) which looks at women and health, and Her Money, a 13 x 30-minute series about women and finance (produced by Quebec’s Triangle Films).

In addition to two one-hour doc strands called Hot Topics and Her Story (which air weekly on the channel), wtn is also in the midst of launching another doc strand called Through Her Eyes, which will examine events that have changed the lives of various Canadian women. License fees for the strand are up to US$40,500 an hour (CDN$60,000), a figure Susan Millican, VP of programming at the channel, considers competitive and a key reason why producers keep coming back. ‘We’ve been successful when dealing with Canadian producers because our license fees are very fair,’ she says.

As for continuing challenges for the channel, Ali admits WTN’s quest is to continue to ‘find out more about women and what their needs are and what they want.’ She adds, ‘Specialty services are market driven, so certainly a lot of research and homework had been done to determine the demands of the market.’


One of the channels with which wtn has a reciprocal buying agreement is New York-based Lifetime Television, a 15-year-old cable channel which recognized the enormity of the women’s audience long before it became the norm. The success of Lifetime and the 24-hour Romance Classics channel, also out of New York, along with the upcoming launch of Oxygen, has made the U.S. a leader in the field of women’s programming.

For its part, Lifetime (which is owned by Disney and the Hearst Corporation) was launched in early 1984, and reaches 74 million homes in the U.S. – a hefty audience by today’s cable standards. Industry trades have pitted it against Oxygen in the race to see who will win the loyalty of American women. Despite recent management shakeups, which included a new president (Carole Black) last year and the recent departures of three top execs (Jane Tollinger, executive VP; Barry Kresch, senior VP of research and marketing services; and Mary Pat Ryan, senior VP of marketing), Lifetime’s viewer ratings, according to the channel, have never been better. ‘We’ve done really well,’ says Amy Introcaso-Davis, VP of series for the east coast. ‘In the first two weeks of 1999, we [achieved] our best ratings ever.’

With a mix of programming which includes original movies, magazine series, sitcom reruns and documentaries, Lifetime has developed its niche as a channel that appeals to a wide array of women. This is consistent with its mandate, according to Introcaso-Davis, to entertain and inform women of all ages, across the spectrum. ‘We feel very committed to having women feel like Lifetime is a place where they can reach a form of community,’ she says. ‘We’re very committed to making women feel that they are at home with us, that they can learn from us, that they can tell us everything through our on-line services.’

One of Lifetime’s most popular series is Intimate Portraits, a 52 x 60-minute biography series that the channel both produces in-house and commissions (for approximately us$15,000 per hour). The aim of Intimate Portraits is to educate the viewer about the lives of women with backgrounds in the arts, entertainment, politics, business and sports. Explains Introcaso-Davis: ‘Intimate Portraits is a series we are very proud of. Essentially, we take women of merit and of interest to our audience, and we show them in an intimate way. It’s everything that a talk show doesn’t do. It’s like sitting down and having a cup of coffee with the subject.’

Lifetime also commissions between three and four ‘big’ documentaries per year (mainly from U.S. producers) on topics ranging from the abuse of women’s rights worldwide (as seen in the project Defending Our Daughters, produced by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple), to stories of developmentally disabled parents raising healthy children (Different Moms, produced by Liz Garbus and Rory Kennedy). Budget ranges for the one-hour docs are between US$150,000-400,000.


If media reports are to be believed, it is New York-based cable channel Oxygen, which will become Lifetime’s primary competition in the U.S. market, an assumption shored up by the recent announcement that a women’s channel planned by Turner Broadcasting System has fallen through due to the company’s decision that it was not in their best interest. The channel, which was to be headed up by Pat Mitchell, president of CNN Productions and Time Inc. Television, was due to launch early in 2000. (For more on this story, see page 6.)

The move has opened the door for Oxygen, a channel which promises to ‘create a new kind of relationship between women and the media that serve [them].’ With a programming budget of US$400 million over the next few years, the channel has the backing of some of the most powerful women in television, namely founder and former Nickelodeon exec Geraldine Laybourne, talk show host Oprah Winfrey and Marcey Carsey (along with her production company, Carsey-Werner-Mandabach).

With an expected launch date of February 2000, the channel will be linked with various women’s-oriented websites in order to provide an interactive, cross-referencing system for the viewer. This interactive component, according to Oxygen Media spokesperson, Jeanine Smartt, is one of Oxygen’s most recognizable features. ‘We’re going to be integrating the best of television with the Internet from the beginning,’ Smartt says. ‘At the same time both of these mediums are being used to inform each other in terms of the programming on cable TV and on-line.’

An added bonus for the new channel, according to Smartt, is the fact that it is up-and-coming. ‘The good thing about being new and doing this is that we don’t have to preserve old media or old formats for any reason,’ she explains. ‘We don’t have a vested interest in doing things that way, whereas others might. It’s great when you don’t have any format that you have to be pulled into.’

The majority of Oxygen’s programs will be original, with both Winfrey’s Harpo Entertainment and Carsey-Werner-Mandabach providing original programming. Oxygen will also have access to the libraries of both companies, although the channel is not clear at this stage how the material will be used.

In a world where cable carriage is getting increasingly difficult to secure, Oxygen has also managed to negotiate a cable deal with Tele-Communications (TCI), which is the second largest cable operator in the U.S. and was recently acquired by AT&T. They have also signed deals with cable ops MediaOne and Charter Communications, and anticipate 10 million subscribers at their launch date and 20 million by the end of year one.

Programming on Oxygen will be divided into blocks, including `The Hive’ (morning), a talk-oriented block with heavy Internet interaction, and `Working Lunch’ (midday), which deals with issues for working women.

As for the danger of oversaturation, as all these channels compete for the same viewers, wtn’s Ali is both cautious and optimistic. ‘I hate to say it, but [the danger of oversaturation] could very well be true, unless each service has a very unique philosophy and a very unique niche. . . that can sustain a certain number of subscribers and not hurt the ones who have been on the air for a quite some time.’ ‘However,’ she adds, ‘with a market of 88 million or whatever it is [in the U.S.], there’s probably room for a few more.’


As for the non-North American market, the growth in women’s channels has been steady, albeit slower, than the recent boom in the U.S. The most recognized of the European women’s-oriented channels is Living (formerly UK Living), which is owned by London’s Flextech Television.

Living produces a mix of original (25%) and commissioned or acquired (75%) programming and bills itself as ‘an entertainment channel with something for everyone.’ The demographic for Living, which launched in the fall of 1993 (and is available on cable, satellite and digital) is women age 16-44. According to Jackie Skinner, head of public relations at Living, the channel is ‘along the lines of Lifetime, but we don’t have as much female-based comedy as they do. They’re what we’re aiming for though.’

Programs on the channel include Special Babies, a 30-minute series (produced by London’s Goldhawk Media), which examines the treatments various children receive in the ward of a local hospital; and Ready, Steady, Cook, a 35-minute cooking series (produced by the BBC). A 20-minute magazine series called Up Close with Lorraine (produced by London’s Pearson Television) which focuses on celebrity guests, cooking, and style tips is one of the series on Living’s new fall schedule.

Included in the landscape for the rest of Europe and Australasia is Munich-based TM3, Germany’s women’s-oriented channel which broadcasts a mix of locally produced and internationally acquired programming on topics such as travel, lifestyle and fashion (included in TM3′s programming slate is Harpo Productions’ 60-minute The Oprah Winfrey Show).

Further south is Worldwide Women’s Network (WWN), a New Zealand-based producer, purchaser and distributor of women’s programming with a mandate to ‘supply compiled packages of focused, appropriate women’s television programs to networks or single stations.’ WWN’s programming was carried by Telecom New Zealand, but they are currently exploring other broadcasting avenues. According to Pamela Meekings-Stewart, managing director of WWN, women are definitely a consumer force in the country. ‘We have four major free-to-air commercial TV networks in New Zealand, three of which would see their most desirable demographic as `household shoppers 25-49,” she says.

It is this ever-expanding demographic which will be the key to success of women’s oriented programming, as more women tune in to see the latest news on issues relating to parenting, lifestyle, and the workforce. Explains Oxygen’s Smartt: ‘There’s a tremendous market that needs to be served.. . . There are all these women out there making decisions. Well, how are they making these decisions? What information are they using to make [them] and how is this information tailored to them? I think everyone is finally recognizing the potential of it.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.