OTI Online
Summer 1997

Some Couch Potatoes Are More Equal to Others
by Carol Vinzant

WHAT WOULD YOU THINK OF A JOB WHERE YOU were paid 44.4 cents an hour for mind-numbing work with no opportunity for advancement? Well, 44.4 cents an hour if you were a woman, but 55.2 cents an hour if you were a man. Once you hit 65, you'd continue to do the work, but you wouldn't get paid at all, and because there are so many more women willing to do the job, the people who run the operation choose to gear the environment toward men to attract more of them.

No, this job isn't working in a sweatshop, making clothes with a celebrity's name on them. It's watching primetime network television. The work is easy - except for maybe sitting through an entire episode of The Single Guy. The real task is absorbing advertising messages. For that, car makers, phone companies, banks and other advertisers will pay you. Rather than pay you directly, however, they'll pay the network who, in turn, will entertain or inform you for a period of time.

Television ad rates work in mysterious ways. Networks sell ads for the same show through many different avenues. Some are sold up front, before the season. Some ads are sold once the season starts, and everyone knows how popular the program is going to be. Most are sold as part of packages: some ads on popular shows, some ads on obscurities like Sunset Beach.

Advertisers pay an average of $23 to reach 1,000 men during primetime, but only $18.50 to reach the same number of women in the same period - seniors are thrown in.

To make sure they don't waste their advertising dollars, networks guarantee advertisers a certain price to reach 1,000 people in a certain demographic group. Advertisers pick who they want to target. Then the network gives them a certain cost per thousand (CPM). For instance, marketers might target men 18-34, women 35-64 or adults in general. Anyone else seeing the show doesn't count. In reality, networks are not really selling their shows. They're selling the attention of their audience. And ever since ratings have been able to distinguish among viewers, networks have been trying to sell their specific audiences as specialty products.

The advertising market makes TV viewers into simple commodities, like copper and sugar, says TV consultant Joe Mandese, of the Myers Report, who also has covered television advertising for Advertising Age. Anything plentiful - in this case women and seniors - comes cheap. Any group that watches less TV - in this case young men - becomes a rare and therefore expensive commodity, he says. "The networks try to put together a large audience and a large audience that people will pay for. They want hard-to-reach targets. Men tend to be hard to reach," says Lyle Schwartz, a senior vice-president of Young and Rubicam.

In the early 1970s, networks got the notion that young people drive the economy. Older viewers have been discounted ever since, says Frank Campisi, senior vice-president for national broadcast research at SFM Media. From The Lawrence Welk Show to Murder, She Wrote, high-rated shows that attract older viewers have gotten the ax.

The message to women is just as clear. There are plenty of ways in everyday life when a woman is told implicitly that her time is not worth as much as that of a man. Broadcast television networks have found a way to do it outright. In current prices, advertisers pay an average of $23 to reach 1,000 men during primetime, but only $18.50 to reach the same number of women, according to Myers Reports.

Networks have so little interest in seniors, they don't even offer a price for them, because no one is buying, says advertising consultant Erwin Ephron. If advertisers buy an audience of those aged 35 and over, seniors get lumped in. That's a big premium for young male attention.

To figure television ad prices another way, advertisers pay each man 2.3 cents for 30 seconds of commercial watching and each woman 1.85 cents. With 12 minutes of commercials an hour, that works out to an hourly wage of 44.4 cents for women versus 55.2 cents for men. That's 24.3 percent more for men. Everyone is familiar with women getting paid less for equal work, but few people realize that the gender differential also applies to time spent lounging in front of a TV set.

Women make up about 20 51.2 percent of the American population. Among adults aged 18-49 population, women slightly outnumber men - 51 percent vs. 49 percent. Then, men start dying early. After age 55, women pull ahead and account for 56 percent of the population.

According to advertising consultant Erwin Ephron, while men in general watch 30 hours of television a week, those over 55 watch 43 hours weekly. Older women watch 43 hours a week, compared to the 34.5 of their younger counterparts.
percent more of the primetime television audience, according to A.C. Nielsen. For the typical primetime show, the adult audience is split 55 percent women, 45 percent men, says Frank Campisi of SFM Media.

Overall, women make up
So, which drives programming more, the fact that more viewers are female or the fact that networks can get higher advertising rates for a more "male" audience? None of the four major networks would return calls for comment.

Many in advertising say that since the majority of the audience is female, this shows that network television is a medium devoted to women. Primetime, it is said, has always been considered time for parents - particularly mothers - to watch TV with their kids. Weekends, however, were considered male TV-watching time. If women were not satisfied with what television was offering, advertising executives argue, they wouldn't watch it.

At least one avid television watcher disagrees with the idea that primetime network television is designed for women. George Gerbner, president of the Cultural Environment Movement, has been tracking television content for 30 years. He was one of the first media watchers to sound the alarm on television violence, and his Pennsylvania-based international coalition promotes gender equality and diversity in the media.

"To say so many people are watching, so they must be satisfied is like saying so many people are breathing the polluted air, so they must like it!," Gerbner says. Just looking at television tells you it is not designed with women in mind. (Has the Senate held hearings lately on too much programming with gratuitous references to daycare, breast cancer or relationship issues?)

Sitcoms are another way to look at the advertising versus viewer issue. Sitcoms have overwhelmingly female audiences. But, did you ever think Home Improvement was written with women, its primary fans, in mind? One anomaly of this system was that Coach, a mindless show whose sports theme helped lure male viewers, at times had higher ad prices than those of Roseanne, which was intelligent, funny and - at the time - the top-rated show.

TELEVISION ANALYSTS OFTEN POINT TO ALL THE FEmale leads as evidence of true societal change. To hear many media critics tell it, women have won the revolution against stereotypes and misrepresentation on TV. After all, advertisers finally picked up on the fact that women buy all kinds of products, not just dishwashing liquid. And that's led to all those shows in which women are more than pallid housewives.

CBS has all those women on Monday. (Well, okay, two, Murphy Brown and Cybill.) There's Roseanne, The Nanny, Grace Under Fire, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and there's Caroline in the City. (Okay, it's unwatchably annoying, but it's still a female lead.)

Looking at a handful of female leads ignores what's going on among the television character masses. How many of the major characters on television are someone women would like to emulate? Sure, cop shows even have women. Law and Order even has a tough, effective black women lieutenant. But just about any woman who walks into the N.Y.P.D. Blue precinct is eventually transformed into either a jealous nut, a victim of rape or incest or just some guy's idea of a trashy broad.

Only 36.9 percent of the characters are women in primetime dramas, though women make up just over half of the actual population.

There are two categories of people that a viewer typically wants to see on television: someone who looks like them and someone who looks like someone they want to date. But, who do we see on television? Mainly gorgeous women and many kinds of men. Naturally because they are actors, a lot of the men tend to be good-looking. But, a lot of them are not. The balding, paunchy, pasty man is a staple of primetime. Typically, they are dating a sexy young thing, an improbable phenomena that will go unnoticed by the other characters on the show.

When there is an attractive male character, no one generally goes to the trouble to gratuitously show him in revealing clothes to please female fans. (Except, of course, The XFiles, which is notorious for generously throwing its female fans a bone and gratuitously having its fabulous male lead, David Duchovny, go swimming or lie around half naked).

No data is out there to document how many schlubby looking guys there are versus how many overweight, flatchested or plain-looking women; how many strong, smart women there are versus the number of women characters who are there for their long hair and big breasts.

But George Gerbner, who is also dean emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications, has compiled data on the less subjective characteristics of primetime characters. He studied the demographic make-up of primetime drama shows and recently released the results for the 1995-1996 season.

Gerbner says that the number of women in primetime did go up as more women entered the workforce. In the 1960s, women characters made up only 27 percent of the characters on primetime. During the 1970s, their number grew - but only to about one in three characters. And it's been at a standstill ever since.

Yes, there is finally an agent Dana Scully, doctor/FBI agent. But for every one of her, there are two Men Behaving Badly. And in cartoons, male characters dominate by six to one. (Each Cinderella has to have at least six dwarfs, it seems.) Gerbner found that just about every group other than white males is underrepresented on television. Only 36.9 percent of the characters are women in primetime dramas, though women make up just over half of the actual population.

What does advertising have to do with what kinds of programming we see? A lot. Whether or not ad rates are based on any sexist assumptions, they may have the effect of favoring and encouraging programs for men."The expected purchase power of the individual and the amount of the purchase definitely influences programming," says Dan Tinianow, an assistant professor of communication arts at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, who has worked in the production of TV commercials. "If there were research that showed children played a role in car-buying decisions, you'd suddenly see a lot more children's programming."

GERBNER AND OTHER EXPERTS FEEL THAT - ASIDE from all the numbers on more women viewers, aside from all the talk about the supply and demand of the audience - the real reason advertisers are willing to pay more for male attention is that they still believe men have more power.

"Advertisers still believe that even though women do more buying, men control the money," Gerbner says. They believe, Gerbner says, that while women may make lots of purchases and may influence lots of others, that men are really the ones making the decisions on the big ticket items. So, if you could make a show that people would pay more for, just because of the people who watch it, why wouldn't you?

"I tend to think it's one of these things that's a business decision," Tinianow says "The motivation isn't just "let's keep women down," any more than blaxploitation films of the 1970s were motivated by anything more than a desire to make money. But that doesn't mean it doesn't send a message. If you can make more money skewing a program towards men, that's the show you're going to make,'"Tinianow says.

Sports shows are a way to attract a male audience. That's why you see so many of them. That's why ventures like ESPN have been successful; they have been able to charge a premium for their male viewers. Advertisers like sports audiences so much that they often call them "pure male."

In fact, sports shows skew about 70 percent male, Frank Campisi of FSM Media says. But most advertisers, he says, figure "Monday Night Football has become almost like an event, a party. You (a woman) might be there, but are you glued to it like your boyfriend or husband is?"

Cars, beer and athletic equipment are the big sports buyers. Athletic shoemakers say they want sports to target men and athletic women, Campisi says, despite women buying a comparable amount of sneakers, usually for fashion rather than athletic needs.

For decades car makers, one of the most crucial industries to advertisers, simply ignored women. Cars and mechanics were a male domain, they assumed. Then consumer surveys started to prove them wrong; many of them showed women buy half of the cars in the U.S. and influence most purchases. Suddenly car makers started to pay attention. They made a few high-profile gestures to solicit women's sales. Ford hired perennial award loser Susan Lucci to appeal to all those women who know her from All My Children. Despite some women-tailored marketing campaigns, automobile manufacturers still buy lots and lots of sports ads.

"What I've observed is, it doesn't matter how much research you have if you also have an executive who 'has a hunch' that runs contrary to it," says Tinianow. Start-up and cable television networks have tried to exploit these irregularities in demographic advertising. When UPN started recently, it alluded to how the major networks' audiences skew female. They said they planned to program for the "underserved male audience." The male audience is about as underserved as Manhattan is underdeveloped. Following the path of the other start-up networks, UPN is trying to serve the advertisers who are willing to pay the most to reach a young male audience. When ABC was struggling to gain ground on the better established networks, it aimed young. More recently, when Fox started up, it aimed young and male.

Donna Allen, founder of Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press, does not hold much hope for the current broadcast system. She doesn't think there's much hope for advertisers paying attention to women and thus solving all our problems. Her center believes that the problems with network programming stem from the networks being owned by a very small group. Women need to have their own networks to tell their own stories themselves, she says.

About the only operation to see the opportunities to reach more women in cable was Lifetime, which announced it was Television for Women in 1994. The network targets women by advocating women's issues and looking at current events from a woman's perspective. All of this was possible, says Meredith Wagner, a Lifetime spokeswoman, because of the shift on the part of advertisers. Ten years ago everybody was ignoring women in advertising, she says, now they're not. Lifetime is proof that you don't have to target men to make it; 1994 Lifetime's ad revenues have gone up by half and its ratings are up 75 percent.

That's encouraging. Because the real hope for changing the way television advertisers and programmers think about women can't depend on an epiphany on the importance of treating women equitably. The real hope is that someone will realize that treating women fairly is profitable.


CAROL VINZANT is a writer for Smart Money Interactive, an online magazine.


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