While there can be no question as to the female-orientation of today’s broadcast TV, just examine the Emmy Nominations for “Glee,”, the question arises, when did TV get so girly? The answer is, 1978.
Wikipedia has a fascinating set of pages detailing the television schedules for the broadcast networks going back to 1946! It can be seen here. In time for the new fall television season, it was time for a pro-forma approach to determine the number of hours devoted each broadcast day in prime-time to shows appealing to men and women. While a real analysis would require a different approach, detailing the actual hours, of male and female skewing programming, a pro-forma approach, using the published Fall schedules of the broadcast networks (excluding mid-season replacements and the Spring schedules) at least gives a sense of what the broadcast networks believed would be popular. Even if they did not in fact turn out to be popular.
This was how I constructed the chart above. Taking each Fall Season, I created a spreadsheet that broke down each season by Day, Male Hours, Female Hours, and total hours, and then summed up the pro-forma (what the season would have looked like had there been no cancellations or mid-season replacements) Fall Hours for that Season. Taking the years 1975-2009, produced the pro-forma chart. Comedies, unless they were uniquely male-skewing (such as “Married With Children” were put in the female bin). Shows that had no real data on how they skewed, were rated as male or female skewing according to IMDB.com or Wikipedia descriptions. Dramas that featured lone male protagonists, in competition with other men, or trying to achieve a goal, were rated as male-skewing. Those with extended families, more female characters, were rated female-skewing, in accordance with Ed Bernero’s dramatic formula for male and female orientation. Thus, the “A-Team,” “Miami Vice,” “the Six Million Dollar Man,” “the Rockford Files,” the 1977 Patrick McGoohan series “Rafferty” (a fore-runner of “House M.D.”) were all classified as male-skewing. While “Little House on the Prairie,” “Medical Center,” “Beacon Hill,” “the Life and Times of Grizzly Adams,” and “the Waltons” were all put in the female-skewing box.
A few oddities stand out. Monday Night Football, on ABC, kept Monday Nights more male-skewing, for years, as other networks sought to counter-program with shows such as “the Invisible Man” (1975, not the recent Sci-Fi series), “NBC Monday Night at the Movies” (I classified movies as male-skewing), and “the White Shadow.” Counter-programming efforts on Mondays (to retain male viewers) seems to have ceased around 1994. Sundays remained the most male skewing night on TV, at, near, or slightly above parity with female skewing hours, until the 1998-1999 Television season, when the hours went from 7, and 11, for male and female skewing hours, in the prior season (1997-1998) to 5 and 13, respectively (no doubt influenced by WB adding three more female-skewing broadcasts that year). Even in 2009-2010, when the WB (and UPN, which did not broadcast as a network on Sundays) ceased operations, and the replacement CW broadcast ended, the near parity between male and female skewing shows on Sundays did not return. Fridays and Wednesdays, also competitive to male-dominated, remained fairly male-skewing through the late 1980’s, when each day began to fluctuate between male and female skewing hours, settling in the early 2000’s to near total domination of broadcast hours by female-skewing shows.
Beyond gender, looking at the schedules, its amazing to see considerable efforts put into Fridays and Saturdays, now considered dead zones (with only Fox showing first-run content, and at that, cheap reality shows like “America’s Most Wanted” and “COPS” on Saturdays). Shows like “the Rockford Files,” “the X-Files,” “Early Edition,” “Nash Bridges,” “Miami Vice,” “the Pretender,” “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “the Bob Newhart Show,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “L.A. Law,” and “Spenser: For Hire” ran on Fridays and Saturdays. Days now considered dumping grounds or places where no new content (only re-runs) are shown at all.
The state of Network TV is fragile. Much of the revenue the networks receive is from part-ownership or full ownership of Cable TV channels. Even channels not getting much viewership (AMC’s “Mad Men” receives less than 2 million viewers for most of its episodes), get lucrative payments from cable and satellite operators, just for carrying the channel. Now that is under pressure, as the Financial Times reports.
The cash-strapped young are leading those shunning cable subscription. The sector lost more than 700,000 subscribers in the US in the second quarter of the year – its worst loss ever, according to SNL Kagan, a research company. This was partly because of competition from satellite operators and telecommunications groups such as Verizon. But new streaming or “over the top” services such as Hulu were also a factor, says Mariam Rondeli of SNL Kagan. “There’s definitely some substitution taking place.”
In a lasting, deep recession, as now seems inevitable, TV networks offering, free, over the air content, with no monthly payments needed, and convenience, simply turn on the TV, and set the VCR or DVD recorder or DVR to record the show, with a minimum of fuss and hassle, SHOULD be the winner over cable. But increasingly, the consumers TV wants the most (cash strapped, early adopter technology-friendly 18-34 consumers) are opting to watch on Hulu or Netflix or other streaming content websites:
Maddy Cross likes to watch television but like many American teenagers she does not bother to use a television set. The 18-year-old drama student will shortly leave her home in Santa Monica, California, to study at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. There was a time when a TV was an essential fixture in any student’s room but Maddy has no plans to take one with her
“I’m moving into a dorm and we decided there wasn’t any point in getting one,” she explains. “We can watch everything we want on our laptops using Netflix and Hulu, which means we don’t have to buy a TV or pay for cable.”
Needless to say, many 18-34 year old consumers dumping broadcast and cable TV viewing for online substitution, which is cheaper versus the monthly cable or satellite bill, means far fewer viewers for ads, creating a vicious circle for broadcast TV, which is already far older than executives would like. Older, more affluent consumers being of less interest to advertisers, who are convinced that brand preference and buying patterns are set in the ages of 12-30 or so.
In a study released by analyst Steve Sternberg, ABC’s median viewership aged one year last season — to 51. CBS also grew a year, to 55. NBC gained two years, to 49. And Fox stayed the same, a relatively nubile 44.
Compare this to a decade ago. ABC was 43, CBS was 52, NBC was 45 and Fox was only 35.
Only young-female targeted relative newcomer The CW has as median age under 40 — 33 — a figure its more or less maintained the past few years.
“Ten years ago, there was still a relatively wide age disparity among the then six broadcast networks,” Sternberg noted.
Other points of interest:
— Comedies tend to be the youngest-skewing shows. In the fall of 1999, there were 45 broadcast sitcoms. Last fall there were just 20.
— Conversely, procedural dramas are among the oldest-skewing genres. A decade ago, there were only five. Last fall there were 20.
— The oldest-skewing broadcast shows include: ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” (57), CBS’ “The Good Wife” (58) and “NCIS” franchise (57).
— Among the youngest: Fox’s animated comedy block (30-32) and “Glee” (38), NBC’s Thursday night comedy block (35-40).
Even with a price of “free,” broadcast TV cannot woo viewers versus online, which has replaced cable as an opportunity and threat. Note that Hulu is part-owned by Fox, NBC-Universal, and of course, ABC. Will Comcast, once it takes control of NBC, pull the plug on its participation of Hulu? Will this simply shift viewers into more “guerrilla” forms of viewing TV content online (equivalent to the late 1990’s Napster explosion before Itunes made MP3 downloads safe, legal, convenient, and cheap?)
Nevertheless, it is clear that since the late 1970’s, TV has become dependent on female viewers. Outside of sports, mostly college and professional football, TV has nothing to offer male viewers.
HBO, and other premium channels, face a challenge. Netflix is offering streaming options, far more convenient, and cheaper, than HBO. Which according to the Financial Times story above, has approximately 30 million subscribers, Netflix rapidly challenging them (see accompanying chart from the FT story above). Indeed it is likely only a matter of time before Netflix, Apple, and other streaming content services start creating their own content, both to get it more cheaply, and to create more popular content. While people have proven they will pay for stuff like “the Sopranos,” or even “Tru Blood,” the entry of lean and hungry competitors like Comcast with NBC, or Netflix, or Apple, or any other number of competitors, seeking to maximize revenues, demands logically, more broadly appealing content. One aimed at men as much as women.
“Cable will go the way of the landline phone industry,” predicts Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities. “It is nothing more than an empty pipe which the internet will replace.”
Moreover, since Hollywood is basically integrated, with most studios supplying content to networks they own and operate, all money tends to flow and ebb together:
Netflix, by contrast, costs $9 a month and subscribers have access to thousands of hours of on-demand film and TV programmes. Mr Sarandos says he is prepared to “write big cheques” to strike fresh content deals with studios, producers and pay-TV companies, using the money saved on postage as customers shift from its DVD subscription service to streaming.
This is music to the ears of Hollywood studio executives worried about the decline of DVD sales, once the most profitable revenue stream but now in steep decline, falling from $14bn at its peak in the US in 2004 to $10.87bn in 2009 [emphasis added], according to Screen Digest, a research company.
With DVD revenue down, Blu-Ray no real replacement, cable service down, and pay/cable TV revenues down Hollywood has serious challenges:
In the second quarter of 2010 paid TV subscriptions fell for the first time ever, with cable taking the biggest hit, according to the research firm SNL Kagan.
A weak U.S. economy is the main reason the firm cited for the dip in subscriptions, as more consumers look for ways to cut down on monthly expenses. Last year’s digital TV conversion may have also played a role in lower growth rates with some people canceling service after promotions on new digital TV packages ran out, the firm said.
The entire paid TV industry, which includes cable, satellite, and phone companies, lost 216,000 customers in the second quarter. A year ago, the industry gained 378,000 new customers, according to SNL Kagan. Six of the eight largest U.S. cable operators reported their worst quarterly video subscriber losses. In total, cable lost 711,000 subscribers in the quarter, the firm reported. Meanwhile, satellite providers DirecTV and Dish networks added about 81,000 new paid TV subscribers. And phone companies, Verizon Communications and AT&T also gained 414,000 new subscribers
To add to the mix, Google plans a pay-TV service:
Google’s YouTube video site is in negotiations with Hollywood’s leading movie studios to launch a global pay-per-view video service by the end of 2010, putting it head-to-head with Apple in the race to dominate the digital distribution of film and television content.
Google has been pitching to the studios on the international appeal of a streaming, on-demand movie service pegged to the world’s most popular search engine and YouTube, according to several people with knowledge of the situation.
Google will use its search technology and YouTube to direct viewers to the new service, which is likely to launch first in the US, with other countries added over time, the people added.
“Google and YouTube are a global phenomenon with a hell of a lot of eyeballs – more than any cable or satellite service,” said one executive with knowledge of the plans. “They’ve talked about how many people they could steer to this . . . it’s a huge number.”
Meanwhile, Hulu plans a $2 billion IPO, and Netflix, Amazon, and Apple are all offering or about to, streaming video showing movies at reduced rates (all around or about $5 for newer titles) at the same time as DVD release and cable pay-per-view. [Watch, clever hackers will battle studios and streaming content providers over copy protection and “ripping” streaming content to hard drives for viewing later, over and over again.] Obviously, TV series will be in the mix. It would not be hard, indeed, to envisage a landscape where serial entertainment is entirely streamed, and TV is merely the province for live sports events, American Idol, and the like.
Creating broadly popular, balanced programming appealing to both sexes, with dramatic elements that hook men (lone heroes overcoming obstacles to “do the right thing” and in competition with other guys) and women (families, relationships, etc.) ought to be the no-brainer. It is certainly a way to avoid cannibalizing existing revenue, in pay/cable TV, and over-the-air viewing. Over-the-air TV is free. Cost to consumers: zero, excluding a TV set which almost everyone has. This is so obvious a response to cash-strapped consumers, that Hollywood’s integrated response: 3-D movies that mostly flop, betting everything on new technology (Blu-Ray, now streaming), can only be explained by a consistent failure by nearly all executives in understanding their customers and marketplace.
Since the late 1970’s, advertisers, the people who pay TV networks for their content (it is not the audience) have abandoned men in search of ever more focused content towards women, believing that women make 80% of all consumer purchasing decisions. TV networks (really just divisions of integrated, massive media companies such as NBC-Universal, or ABC-Disney) responded by purchasing cable networks and reaping carrier fees by cable operators once cable and satellite TV offered competitive threats. Hulu and other streaming content operations (CBS has its own streaming content on its website) are merely a continuation of the cable strategy.
Yet it is likely that the wallet of consumers will finally bring a halt to the madness, decades long, of ignoring and abandoning the male viewer in TV and depending on advertisers paying a premium to reach young women 18-34.
At best, streaming operators such as Hulu are offering $9 a month charges. That’s a fraction of the revenues accruing to cable channels owned by networks, for example ABC Family Channel, for subscriber access. The money generated by streaming content won’t replace lower advertising money (as the prized 18-34 demographic downsizes) nor will it replace lost cable channel carriage fees. Meanwhile large fixed costs of maintaining both broadcast and cable channel networks remain.
A Republican led Congress, meanwhile, determined to punish a left-leaning Hollywood and make consumer friends, could mandate ala-carte pricing for cable channels. Pay only for what you need, which would kill many of the channels. Including LOGO, the various Lifetime channels, Oprah’s new channel, BET, Bravo, TLC, and many others that very few watch. Perhaps Obama would veto it, but he might also sign it. It is a definite risk, and even a veto might draw a bipartisan over-ride on a “safe” issue designed to respond to consumer wallets being stressed by the recession.
Eventually what we will be seeing is broadcast/cable network combinations file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as parent companies run out of cash to operate them. Even mega media companies cannot run huge operating deficits forever. Comcast-NBC is probably the most likely one, given the parent vulnerability to cancellation of cable service and “guerrilla” TV watching on the internet. Viacom/CBS is another, given the extraordinary dependence on the business acumen of Sumner Redstone, and the inevitable fall-out in the battle for corporate control when he is no longer active as the CEO and largest voting-rights shareholder. While Fox was able to run a deficit of over $1 billion for the first ten years of its existence, neither the WB nor UPN could exist on their own for longer than that, even in the relatively better economic climate of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
It is not inconceivable that neither NBC nor CBS would exist five years from now. In that case, the reason would be, what happened in 1978. When the broadcast networks decided they could get along without men. Its been a long run. But that bet seems to have run its course.