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Networks Get Busy in a Crowded Market

6/08/2007 8:00 PM Eastern

Television for women is getting a lot more interesting these days.

When Oxygen launched as the young, hip channel for female viewers in 2000, Women’s Entertainment TV was also trying to get a foothold in the women’s market — both going up against Lifetime, the reigning queen of women’s television.

Back then, operators wondered if there was enough room in the cable market for three branded women’s channels.

Not only was there room then, but SoapNet and The Style Network have also started making more noise in the marketplace, fortifying their female-targeted networks with 24-hour soaps and lifestyle programming, respectively.

With women accounting for over 50% of the population — and representing the major purchasers in most households — niche programming continues to be increasingly attractive to advertisers attempting to reach that demographic, and cable is really picking up on the vibe of the modern female.

Lifetime scored big with its most-watched series debut, Army Wives, pulling in 3.5 million total viewers. The episode bested shows on every other cable network with women 18-49, making it the first time it has won the time period in three years.

That is a promising start for Lifetime as it looks to draw younger viewers with contemporary dramas like Wives as well as Side Order of Life and State of Mind, which premiere July 15. New president and CEO Andrea Wong is reluctant to make “any radical changes yet,” waiting to see if the network can build momentum over the summer.

While at ABC, Wong developed popular femme-focused fare, such as Wife Swap and Supernanny, as well as the U.S. version of Dancing With the Stars and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

“I was attracted to the incredible brand of Lifetime, and the opportunity to focus solely on targeting women from both a programming perspective and the opportunity with respect to advocacy,” said Wong. “Things are changing a lot so this is a great opportunity to target a specific group with whom I relate to very well.”

Later this month, Lifetime debuts original movie Girl, Positive, starring Emmy-winner S. Epatha Merkerson, Jennie Garth and Andrea Bowen as a high school senior who suspects she may be infected with HIV. Other shows in development include the Madness of Jane, starring Ever Carradine; Bailey Wiggins, based on the novels of Cosmopolitan editor in chief Kate White; Mile High, an adaptation of the British airline drama; Burnt Toast, based on Teri Hatcher’s 2006 memoir; and The Gathering, a horror series scheduled for fall.

Oxygen has long touted itself as “The New Girls Network,” and continues to set its sights on bold and funny shows for young adult women with its top-rated reality shows and unconventional comedies as The Bad Girls Club, The Janice Dickenson Modeling Agency, Mo’Nique’s F.A.T. Chance and Campus Ladies.

On June 24, the network will premiere the second installment of the three-part documentary series, Who Cares About the Girls? with Lisa Ling. The episode, “Slave Girls of India,” explores child exploitation, and is part of Oxygen’s initiative to get women involved with global issues.

“We have tried to concentrate our brand on younger women, women who feel optimistic about the world, who don’t want to shrink to fit,” said Oxygen chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne, who earlier this year relaunched the network’s online presence with two new components: Oomph.net, a networking platform for women, and She DidWhat.tv, a broadband channel featuring ad-supported programming.

Over at WEtv, the channel drew record ratings for its original programming last year, also pulling in young viewers with its top non-scripted series Bridezillas, Secret Lives of Women and John Edwards Cross Country.

With original programming accounting for 40% of the channel’s primetime lineup, WE is adding a “Real Mysteries” anthology to its Friday night schedule, and will attempt to build upon its recent gains with two pet-themed series, Adventures in Doggie Daycare and Americas Cutest Puppies.

“We’re speaking to all of the things that are important to women: women who are married, raising families and who also have a career outside the household,” said WE executive vice president and general manager Kim Martin, touting the success of their off-beat reality series, Wife, Mom, Bounty Hunter.

In the case of that show, “[Star Sandra Scott] is obviously in a more male-oriented industry, a little more dangerous and there’s a vicarious nature in launching a show like that, but it’s still very relatable to the contemporary woman,” Martin said.

Part of the trick to creating relatable shows for women is having a staff that understands — better yet, reflects — a network’s audience. According to Martin, over 80% of the channel’s viewers are women, as are their employees; and about 24% of the viewers are minorities — just like the channel’s staff. “It makes us able to market and program better to our viewers,” said Martin.

Style Executive vice president Salaam Coleman Smith said women-targeted networks run by women have “a strategic advantage because a lot of creative ideas and brainstorming emerges from your own personal experience.”

Style, which has gone from high end “fashionista network” to general fashion and lifestyle channel, has seen consistent audience growth in the past three years. With over 80% of the network’s programming consisting of original non-scripted fare, Style has made headway with signature franchises How Do I Look, Clean House, The Look 4 Less and Fashion Police.

“We’re one of the few networks that feature real, everyday women in the majority of our programming,” said Coleman Smith who, just this month launched the network’s 21-day June wedding party with a brand new series, I Propose, and all-new episodes of popular shows, Whose Wedding Is It Anyway? and Style Her Famous.

“What is great about the current programming environment is that there are a number of networks targeted to women,” said Coleman Smith. “Some people might perceive that as sort of a competitive threat, but I perceive it as an opportunity, in the sense that each of these networks offers something different.”

SoapNet is everything its name implies: all soaps, all the time, and now viewers can get their soapy fix in a lot of different ways. Along with its acquired daytime and primetime soap dramas, the channel has greenlighted 13 episodes of General Hospital: Night Shift, the network’s first attempt in the scripted arena.

SoapNet is also planning the Aug. 1 launch of primetime real-life drama The Fashionista Diaries. The fourth season of I Wanna Be a Soap Star debuts Aug. 14, with the channel going outside the ABC family for the first time to partner with NBC’s Days of Our Lives.

“One of the tremendous advantages we’ve always had at SoapNet is that we know who we are and what we stand for, and everybody else knows it as well,” said executive vice president and general manager Deborah Blackwell.

Like most women’s networks, SoapNet is taking advantage of online opportunities.

“Women have gotten a lot more tech savvy in the seven years now that we started SoapNet, and therefore it’s more and more important for us to have a very robust Web presence, and I think it’s been a great area of growth for us,” Blackwell said.

Even some broadcast networks are targeting women. ABC, most notably, is attempting to brand itself this fall with more shows that appeal to the fans of Grey’s Anatomy.

“I think television is just reflecting how our society has changed,” said Blackwell. “Just as we’re seeing women in professional positions in the world, we’re now seeing programming that depicts women in professional positions.”

She added: “Because of the rise of cable, there’s room for so many more voices now and so the truth is you’re going to see even more points of view represented.”

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