Prime-time viewing has ditched male-led programmes to aim at a loyal female audience that increasingly controls the family
She can leap across rooftops, lift huge objects and knock down a man with one blow. Meet the new Bionic Woman: updated for the modern era in a gritty, realist style that already has television insiders anticipating a hit. Bionic Woman, which stars the former EastEnders actress Michelle Ryan, had plenty of strong female company last week as America’s TV executives gathered in New York to unveil their new shows. US television is preparing a huge chunk of prime-time programming based on strong women characters who are more than a match for any men that come their way.
Old stereotypes are being cast out and a new audience – dominated by women – is being catered for. Beyond the new serious Bionic Woman – far removed from the kitsch 1970s original – are the Women’s Murder Club, with four amateur women detectives solving crimes. Then there is Lipstick Jungle, with Brooke Shields, and Cashmere Mafia, starring Lucy Liu, based on groups of successful, strong women. A medical series, Private Practice, starring Kate Walsh, centres on a woman doctor. ‘It is all about having female leads at the moment,’ said Professor Tina Pieraccini, broadcasting expert at the State University of New York.
The shows that the networks killed off or suspended also show the change from male leads to women. Gone are comedies and dramas like George Lopez, What About Brian and According to Jim. Both Lipstick Jungle and Cashmere Mafia are inspired by Sex and the City but, instead of dating and obsessing over fashion, the women are successful in their jobs and struggle to balance work and family lives.
Nor is it all about glamour. One of the biggest recent TV hits was Ugly Betty, whose main character is distinctly unglamorous and played by America Ferrera, who first gained recognition in the film Real Women Have Curves. Experts say female-centric programming is breaking new ground with characters displaying foibles viewers can relate to. ‘These new characters are strong women. But they are also strong, flawed women. That’s a reflection of society wanting a more realistic portrayal of life,’ said Pieraccini.
Women characters are also set to become more prevalent in the world of US sitcoms. Apart from Ugly Betty, one of the biggest critical hits is The New Adventures of Old Christine, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Sitcoms coming later this year with female leads are Sam I Am, starring Christina Applegate, Miss/Guided with Judy Greer, and Parker Posey in The Return of Jezebel James
It is not only in TV where women are making their strength felt. One of the most successful, and male-dominated, areas of American media is the talk radio industry, home to legions of ‘shock jocks’ stirring up controversy with live debates. In recent weeks three shock jocks have seen their careers collapse after making derogatory comments about women. Last week two hosts, known as Opie and Anthony, were suspended after airing offensive remarks about the rape of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
‘Any woman who hears the clip will be seething at the misogynistic diatribe. Both hosts knew what they were doing when they treated assault and rape as a joke,’ said Kim Gandy, of the National Organisation for Women. It followed the sacking of Don Imus – one of the biggest names in radio – after he made disparaging comments about a women’s basketball team. Much of the Imus controversy centred on the racial element, but it was as much about his sexism. Women’s organisations campaigned against him, attacking his show’s advertisers. ‘We just got through this with Imus … profiting from hate will cost you,’ said Gandy.
The main reason behind the rise of women is money. US women have more purchasing power than ever before and, in an industry that needs advertising, that gives them increasing influence over airwaves. Women head about 40 per cent of US households, make 85 per cent of purchasing decisions and run 40 per cent of US companies. Its an economic clout that can only get stronger.
‘The baby boomer generation of women got power. But what advertisers really want are the boomers’ daughters. They’re in their twenties and thirties, have careers and can spend lots of money,’ said Pieraccini. At the same time broadcasters are facing a decline in the number of young men watching TV. The key 18-24 group has shrunk by at least 12 per cent as they turn to DVDs and video games. Women now make up more than half of all prime-time viewers and watch four hours more TV a week than men.
The colossus in the new landscape is Oprah Winfrey. She has made millions dominating female daytime television and is branching out into evening prime-time with a reality TV show on ABC called The Big Give, featuring celebrities in acts of philanthropy. She is also making inroads into talk radio with a satellite show called Oprah & Friends, while GreenStone Media has started a talk radio network with an ‘all female, all talk’ format. Partly backed by actress and liberal activist Jane Fonda, some in the industry have dubbed it ‘respect radio’, reflecting its less confrontational style.
There is, of course, a long way to go. Katie Couric’s appointment as the evening news anchor at CBS was a great moment for women in broadcasting. But she has failed to haul the show past the ratings of rivals at ABC and NBC. CBS ratings are at 7.3 million viewers, down about 5 per cent on a year ago, despite Couric’s high profile and $15m salary.
US broadcasting bosses remain as male, middle-aged and white as the rest of corporate America. But changes are afoot. One of the most humorous signs is a commissioned TV comedy about some newly discovered cavemen and the prejudices they face. Being called a caveman used to be a badge of male chauvinism. Now it is being used to explore the experiences of a misunderstood minority. Things really have started to change.
Hollywood director and documentary film maker Aaron Russo has gone in-depth on the astounding admissions of Nick Rockefeller, who personally told him that the elite’s ultimate goal was to create a microchipped population and that the war on terror was a hoax, Rockefeller having predicted an “event” that would trigger the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan eleven months before 9/11.
Rockefeller also told Russo that his family’s foundation had created and bankrolled the women’s liberation movement in order to destroy the family and that population reduction was a fundamental aim of the global elite.