Nets on gender bender

Webs get in touch with their feminine side as they head into upfronts

Women are back.

Not that they ever left primetime TV. But after several years of trying to bag fickle male viewers — to mixed results — the broadcast webs have rediscovered the joy of the fairer sex.

Credit for the renewed female focus goes to the ongoing “Desperate Housewives” phenom. Launched in a sea of gritty procedurals, “Housewives” served as a wake-up call to programmers: They had clearly been neglecting a large part of their audience.

As they head into the May upfronts, however, the networks are about to get even more female-friendly.

The lion’s share of CBS comedy pilots are fronted by the likes of Jenna Elfman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Susie Essman. ABC drama projects “Commander-in-Chief,” “Introducing Lennie Rose,” “Laws of Chance” and “Soccer Moms” all boast strong female leads. And UPN is dusting off the last vestiges of its testosterone-laden past, going so far as to adopt the slogan “Where the Girls Are.”

Alphabet web even recently announced it would relinquish its longtime “Monday Night Football” franchise after next season, despite still ranking No. 1 among men.

No surprise that the networks are tweaking their targets. Women, after all, watch much more primetime TV than men do. According to Nielsen’s most recent data, men tune into an average of eight hours and 53 minutes of primetime TV weekly, compared to 10 hours and two minutes for women.

That’s born out in primetime ratings: All six nets average 4.7 million women 18+ in prime, compared to 3.4 million for men.

“There’s some truth to the fact that it’s easier to rally significant amounts of women around a show rather than men,” says one network exec. “Men are notoriously hard to reach — without sports, it’s just hard to get them.”

Network execs caution, however, that there’s no grand gender plan. CBS, for example, developed more female-led laffers this season after overdosing on too many dumpy-husband-with-an-attractive-wife comedies (“Still Standing,” “King of Queens”).

ABC didn’t realize the secrets of “Desperate Housewives'” success until after the show bowed. And UPN didn’t adjust its target until after “America’s Next Top Model” took off.

That’s not to say the networks wouldn’t like to attract more men. But as Fox finds every fall, even when guys show up for big events like the World Series, they don’t stick around for long. That makes series that do click with men, like “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” all the more valuable.

But, execs note, it’s still easier to build on an audience that you’re already carrying than to talk to an audience you don’t have.

And the nets realized this development season that they’d slowly moved away from female-led comedies and dramas (with exceptions, of course).

Last fall, just three laffers on the Big Four centered on a leading lady, all on ABC’s TGIF lineup: “8 Simple Rules,” “Hope & Faith” and “Less Than Perfect.” (NBC’s “Will & Grace” is split, while Fox’s “Stacked” was added to the list in midseason.)

“People looked at the schedule and started wondering what happened to women in comedy,” says an exec. “And ‘Housewives’ did lend credence to the networks looking to develop what’s not currently being done on the air.”

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