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What women want

Cablers invade 'Grey's' femme territory

Women are driving Sunday nights, and the proof is in the 10 p.m. smackdown shaping up between broadcasters and cable.

Much has been made of the battle, starting March 12, between ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” and HBO’s “The Sopranos” at 9 p.m. But a more intense faceoff goes down later in the evening — and it’s all about the ladies. (The men are ignored until the fall, when football starts its 15-week run.)

Cablers are about to unleash some heavy artillery on the Sunday 10 p.m. battleground, despite the massive success of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” — which surpassed “Housewives” in the 18-49 race during sweeps.

HBO will bow “Big Love,” a drama about polygamy.Lifetime will push out “Cheerleader Nation,” the first of several new series on the cabler aimed at young, hipper women.

Sunday night is also home to femme-skewing “Crossing Jordan” on NBC and Oxygen’s bawdy frosh comedy “Campus Ladies.”

On the surface, pitting the new programs against “Grey’s” sounds nuts. With an average 25 million viewers, the drama will no doubt continue to win the Sunday crown. But aside from “Grey’s,” Sunday at 10 is still a relatively open marketplace, with only three broadcasters running programming.

What’s really at stake isn’t ratings: it’s buzz.

Admits Oxygen entertainment chief Debby Beece, “It’s very scary and seems counter-intuitive to take a new show with no stars (like ‘Campus Ladies’) and put it up against the hottest show on TV.

“What you hope is that there are people looking for an alternative,” she says.

With audiences more fragmented than ever and an increasing number of original shows cropping up, some TV bizzers insist it’s a gamble to program shows for women against a sudser like “Grey’s,” which has a rabid female fan base. Cable brass argue, however, that Sunday still has the highest percentage of households watching TV, and remains a prime destination to grab share.

ABC declined comment, but Alphabet execs aren’t worried about the competing shows siphoning off share from “Grey’s,” which has built its mammoth following gradually.

HBO execs think they have a strong contender in “Big Love,” a relationship drama toplined by Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Chloe Sevigny. Show is a return to the kind of contemporary fare that has worked best with HBO auds in the past — e.g.: “Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” and “Six Feet Under.”

More recent period pieces “Carnivale,” “Deadwood” and “Rome” were each able to grow followings, but were never quite showered with the fanfare their predecessors enjoyed.

HBO moved up the premiere of “Big Love” to ensure the “Sopranos” crowd would sample its next big hour. Net’s exec VP of research and scheduling David Baldwin acknowledges a possible overlap for female audiences between “Big Love” and “Grey’s,” but points out the pay cabler “is not in a race to grab viewers that first night.”

Network did try to open up Monday nights last year, using the final season of “Six Feet Under” as a guinea pig. But HBO does not sell advertising, and suits are more concerned with an episode’s cumulative impact — the sum viewership of a week’s worth of airings — than the Sunday number.

While Sunday numbers will be a telling indicator of consumer interest for “Big Love” and “Cheerleader,” HBO has been aggressively marketing the idea that you can catch its shows during the Sunday premiere “or any time on demand.”

“We’ve got several other shots at them during the week,” Baldwin says. “I have a lot more opportunities to gather and build my audience than ABC does. We look at Sunday as a place to start things.”

What’s more, with digital downloads on the rise and iTunes TV biz booming, counterprogramming may slowly ride off into the sunset as viewers become inundated with options to watch shows when they want. (“Grey’s” is not available on iTunes.)

Lifetime programming prez Susanne Daniels has poured several million dollars — and bought up primo spots on “American Idol” — into the launch of her first original series, the docusoap “Cheerleader Nation.” Cabler brass say the show marks the beginning of the channel’s evolution into a younger, hipper Lifetime. (“Cheer leader” was initially set up at teen-centric MTV).

Lifetime’s research senior VP Tim Brooks says the channel is rarely affected by schedule competition. “We have a specific audience and personality that works as a draw in and of itself. Our viewers know what to expect from us and when to expect it,” he says.

Brooks admits the ratings expectations for “Cheerleader” — a decidedly different offering from past dramas like “Strong Medicine” — are lower than they would be for a new scripted drama.

And if the Olympics/”American Idol” showdown proved anything, it’s that mass audiences can exist for buzzworthy programming, even in the same timeslot. More recently, the finale of Bravo’s “Project Runway” and the bow of FX’s “Black.White” broke ratings records while sharing the 10 p.m. Wednesday period.

But some TV bizzers wonder whether the race for women has room for everyone at 10 p.m.

“Lifetime, in particular, must feel very confident it has a show (in ‘Cheerleader’) that will resonate and get a lot of buzz, like a ‘Queer Eye’ or a ‘Dancing With the Stars,'” says Tom Weeks, a director at media buyer Starcom Entertainment. “It has to feel like it’ll be a compelling option, different from ‘Grey’s.’ ”

HBO’s Baldwin seems the least worried: “The upside for our business is we don’t make or lose a dollar with audience’s choice. They can watch our shows when they want.”