Zap-Happy Fellas Widen Ratings Gender Gap

Male viewers have become the bane of network television.

Recent studies confirm what programmers have long suspected: Men watch less television overall than women, they watch fewer hours of network programming and they are far more likely to “zap” shows into broadcast oblivion.

“Male viewership? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” jokes Alan Wurtzel, ABC’s senior vice president of marketing and research services.

Partially in response to those troublesome demos, the networks are airing an increasing number of shows whose demographics are highly skewed along gender lines.

For instance, CBS’ “Designing Women,” NBC’s “Empty Nest” and ABC’s “thirtysomething” regularly draw 30% more female than male viewers.

Conversely, Fox shows such as “Married… With Children,” “The Simpsons” and “In Living Color” score considerably better with men: “Married” ranks 24th in popularity among men, 75th with women; “The Simpsons” ranks 29th with men and 72nd with women; and “Color” ranks 42nd with men and 83rd with women.

“When Fox was founded, it became clear to us that the other networks didn’t have a fix on young audiences and men, so we tried to become an alternative source of programming for those audiences,” says Fox senior v.p. Sandy Grushow. “Men, in general, tend to appreciate material with a little more of an edge to it, and that’s what we offer them.”

But even as the nets cater to specific demos, the widening gap between shows that attract men and those that draw women worries programmers. “We feel that network tv must strike a balance,” says David Poltrack, CBS senior v.p. of research and planning, “but increasingly we’re delivering the men over here and the women over there.”

According to network researchers, 42% of men with sets are watching primetime tv on any given night, as opposed to 46% of women (on Friday nights the male audience dips to 37% and women drop to 42%).

The average network portion of male primetime viewership has fallen 8% this season, to 54%. (Female primetime viewership is down 6% to 64%.)

By their own admission, men are also far more avid “zappers” than women. According to a recent national survey by Frank Magid Associates, among viewers age 25 to 49 who were asked whether they flicked “always,” “often,” “rarely” or “never,” three times as many men as women answered “always.”

“We can only conjecture about why men use the flicker more than women,” says David Smith, manager of tv consultation at Magid. “It may have something to do with the sense of controlling a power tool, or it may say something about the male attention-span. A lot of women think it has something to do with having a phallic device in hand, but I think they’re kidding about that.”

According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., peoplemeters require at least 30 seconds to scan channels. Consequently, frenetic zappers (a.k.a. “grazers”) often escape detection and go uncounted in ratings calculations.

With certain shows, network programmers merely seem resigned to the gender gap.

“We can’t go to Marshal Herskovitz and Ed Zwick [ exec producers of “thirtysomething”] and say you’ve got to boost your male demographics, nor would we want to do that, ” says Ted Harbert, ABC Entertainment exec v. p.

Bill Cosby even acknowledged recently that story lines on “The Cosby Show” were skewed more this season to interest women. (One reason Fox pits “The Simpsons” against NBC’s “Cosby” is Cosby draws more women than men viewers; it now ranks eighth with women and 18th with men.)

But other than football and Schwarzenegger movies, it’s not always clear what will capture male viewers’ attention. Two seasons ago, NBC attempted the most time-tested attention-grabber of all by parading scantily clad beach babes in “Baywatch.” But the show averaged only a meager 15 share among both men and women age 18 to 49.

Faced with choosing between the sexes, it makes sense for broadcasters to seek female viewers. “Women are numero uno,” says John Sisk, media analyst at J. Walter Thompson. “They’re still the principal media planners and food shoppers.”

“At this point, you still have more advertisers looking to reach women than men,” says Betsy Frank, tv analyst at Saatchi & Saatchi.

Additionally, the potential upside of female-oriented programs in syndication is high because significantly more women than men are home to watch daytime television.

“We have always been and will always be basically a female-oriented medium,” says Harbert. “But the fact that men are not as loyal to tv shows as they used to be makes the job all t he more challenging.”

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