Special Report on Reaching Girls: The Girls TV market: Challenging the myths

Even though the female demographic represents half the children's viewing audience, studio executives and television programmers continue to consider shows aimed at girls as niche programming. But as this coming season suggests, change appears to be on the horizon. Several new...
August 1, 1997

Even though the female demographic represents half the children’s viewing audience, studio executives and television programmers continue to consider shows aimed at girls as niche programming. But as this coming season suggests, change appears to be on the horizon. Several new TV shows and a number of upcoming features have girls starring in lead roles. And in the CD-ROM business, a series of products are finding particular popularity among females. The following report looks at how the entertainment and marketing communities are reaching out to girls.

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At first glance, it would appear that there’s not much happening in girls television programming. Saturday morning ratings continue to register stand-out hits for boys, but dismally lukewarm numbers among girls, with the highest ratings dribbling in for tried-and-true classics like The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries. Adding to the sense of inactivity is the fact that no major kids broadcaster or producer wants to admit to having a girls show, thanks to the persistent industry opinion that girls will watch shows for boys but boys spurn girls shows.

Although it’s widely acknowledged that this demographic is underserved, programs that openly attempt to fill the void are considered risky, if not foolish. Girls, who represent half of the kids demographic, still appear on the surface to be viewed as a commercially undesirable fringe.

Yet, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that there is, in fact, a lot going on, and that broadcasters and producers are preparing for a significant courtship of the girls demographic this fall.

In search of a hit

‘Everybody wants to be the first one to hit home with the girls demographic to have that breakout hit. That’s because no one has done it yet,’ says Ellie Dekel, executive vice president of marketing and advertising at Saban Entertainment. ‘On the other hand, we never want to create a show that is so niche-oriented that we miss other audience segments.’

Despite the tremendous number of potential girl viewers, programs that target them are still considered niche programming. Acknowledging these risks, Saban will make a bold move into the category this fall, launching its new Princess Sissi animated series internationally with 52 episodes. Because of the difficulty of debuting niche shows in the U.S., Saban will hold off on introducing Princess Sissi domestically. In addition, Saban’s new live-action series Thoroughbred centers on the life of a 12-year-old ranch girl.

According to Jean MacCurdy, president of television animation at Warner Bros., a true girls hit has yet to come. ‘I don’t know that there is any girls programming, per se. Over the years, there have been very few hits that focused primarily on girls, for girls. There were some shows back in the late ’70s that did that, but I think in general most of the programming has been directed at boys or has tried to go for a combined audience.’

Robby London, DIC Entertainment’s senior vice president of creative affairs, concurs. ‘There haven’t been any big successes. In order to succeed, a show has to pull in both boys and girls.’ DIC asserted its interest in the category at the Licensing Show this June, however, announcing a deal with Japanese company SANRIO to produce a new animated Hello Kitty series, repackage 50 existing episodes, and expand worldwide merchandising of the property.

Some execs sidestep the difficult issues of girls entertainment by refusing to single out the girls audience.

‘I’m not sure if I would classify children into the genders too quickly,’ says Alliance’s Louise Worth, managing director of international TV. The studio’s new Captain Star live-action series concerns the characters’ adventures in a rocket ship, yet it is not considered a boys series, she notes.

‘The Nickelodeon shows that were very popular with girls Clarissa and Alex Mack were popular with boys, too,’ says Sue Rose, executive producer and creator of Walt Disney Television Animation’s new Pepper Ann series, whose main character is a 12-year-old girl. ‘I think we’re doing a greater service by making a show that is relatable to kids to a sort of a non-gender-specific audience,’ she says.

The changing depiction of girls

An analyst at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) of Saturday morning television notes that boys shows dominate, thanks to their perceived ability to pull in girls.

‘However, the female characters on Saturday morning usually the main characters’ best friends or siblings are not soft and frilly,’ says Jim Reynolds, chief researcher at the UCLA Center for Communication Policy. One exception cited by Reynolds is Megaman, a syndicated show stripped on Fox about a boy robot superhero whose sister fights by wielding a hair dryer, rolling pin and household appliances as weapons. Such blatant stereotypes are rare, however, and programs like DIC’s Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, which portray girls as ‘intelligent, logical, sensible and, in some cases, more mature than the males,’ prevail, according to Reynolds.

In this respect, Saturday morning may be more progressive than other day parts. Reviving Ophelia, the much-quoted best-selling book by Mary Pipher, Ph.D., which decries society’s effect on girls, notes that TV presents ‘women depicted as half-clad and half-witted, often awaiting rescue by quick-thinking, fully-clothed men.’

Numerous top female executives in the kids biz may have had an impact. ‘Ten years ago, there were no women in animation,’ says Fox Kids Networks Worldwide’s chairman and CEO, Margaret Loesch. ‘I think as producers and developers, it’s important. In shows like [Mighty Morphin] Power Rangers, it’s very important for girls to have equal power.’

WB’s MacCurdy who is in part responsible for strong female characters such as Dot Warner on the network’s Animaniacs says the mandate for change comes from the top. ‘We have really worked at creating female characters that I would say are not stereotypical. Characters that have their own sense of self and a great sense of self-esteem about them.’

Still, Reynolds says, gender inequity is alive and well. ‘It’s still hardly a level playing field in terms of numbers. There are many more male characters on Saturday morning than girls.’

A gender issue

What do girls look for in programming? ‘I think girls care more about the story than boys,’ says Mickie Steinmann, vice president of international television and home video sales for Gaumont. ‘Boys are more into the actual image on the screen.’ Gaumont has an unnamed girls show in development that reflects this programming philosophy, Steinmann notes.

‘It has the same girl in different situations in each episode, so each episode is like a mini-movie. The focus is the stories, the writing. I think that is the key to a successful girls show.’

Loesch, however, doubts that this is a gender issue. ‘Goosebumps is a very good example of a show that was very strong with boys and girls so boys also like a good story,’ she says. ‘It’s just that you have to have the eye candy with boys.’

The idea that girls shy away from action may also be a myth, according to Loesch. ‘In the early days of Power Rangers, girls were as large an audience as boys. That tells you that girls like action.’

Advertiser demand, not programmer bias, spurred the networks to focus on boys. ‘Advertisers for boy products were looking for a place to advertise boy products, so they were going to slates that had more action-adventure, and often that was network television,’ says Loesch.

Despite the economic pressure to favor boys, Loesch says broadcasters are aware of the importance of the girl viewer. ‘There was a recent study done that showed that girls control the set. In families where there were both, girls could generally get their way concerning what to watch,’ Loesch says.

Uncommon heroines

Tapping into the girl psyche is the aim of a number of striking new series with unusual heroines. Nelvana’s sales consultant Rodrigo Piza says the studio’s new Pippi Longstocking series attracts both older girls and young boys with its heroine’s misadventures. ‘Pippi is very audacious. I think it’s a very strong girls property, but it does appeal to boys because she’s boyish,’ he notes.

The Legend of Calamity Jane, Kids’ WB!’s all-new animated western adventure co-produced with Contre-allee in France, puts forth a heroine who’s anything but soft and frilly. Calamity Jane is fast with the whip and rides the trails and backwoods in search of truth and justice. Despite the program’s obvious appeal, the network isn’t positioning it as a girls program. ‘I believe that because the genre is so fresh an animated western that we will attract both boys and girls,’ says MacCurdy.

Avoidance of the moniker ‘girls show’ is widespread. Disney’s Pepper Ann features tales of first bras and dying of embarrassment in the presence of a cool boy at school, yet its creators resist the girls label. ‘It’s about a real kid who happens to be a girl,’ says executive producer Rose. ‘She’s not a girl in a stereotypical way she’s not a Barbie,’ Rose adds.

Catharine Branscome, vice president of international distribution at animated classics producer GoodTimes Entertainment, argues that a female lead does not a girls show make. ‘I don’t understand why a fairy tale that has a female lead might be considered a girls story any more than King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table [might be considered a boys story].’

It’s a girl thing

With all the new programs catering to girls, it’s clear that producers and broadcasters are hungry for a piece of the pie. However, old attitudes die hard.

‘I sense that there’s a void in that particular area,’ says Tom Devlin, Hearst Entertainment’s senior vice president, international sales. ‘But most of my clients wouldn’t ever even bring it up. There’s not an overwhelming call for young girls.’

Historically, animated products that break through with girls bode well for the future. Sunbow Entertainment’s Jem, a rock-oriented girls cartoon from the mid-’80s, ran to 65 half-hours. ‘Jem dispelled two myths: one, that animation is a boy’s domain, and two, that music is more important to boys than girls,’ says Janet Scardino, senior vice president of international sales and co-productions. Scardino says Sunbow is currently developing a new girls property tentatively titled Toaster Sisters, dubbed ‘an animated Thelma and Louise,’ and Skeleton Key, an edgy fantasy cartoon with a teenage girl as its main character.

‘The success of Jem really proved that if you target girls, they will come,’ Scardino says. ‘To exclude boys isn’t the objective.’

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