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The Gender Flap

Men are from ESPN; women, from Lifetime. Or so it would seem according to research and other evidence of viewing habits by gender. Hey, we're different.

April 12, 1998|Brian Lowry | Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

When the CBS series "JAG" is screened for test audiences, producers have noticed that while the more emotional scenes resonate with women, it's the military drama's "hardware" that causes the dials to rise among men.

"When you come to an action scene, the women will drop off, and the men will peak incredibly," says executive producer Donald P. Bellisario.

The consistency of that dynamic underscores how men and women watch television differently, as well as changes in a wired-for-cable world that contribute to such a rift, prompting many couples to adjourn to separate rooms and watch TV on their own.

The major networks find attracting men especially difficult, which helps explain a dizzying series of sports TV deals as programmers seek showcases to reel in that audience at least temporarily. The frenzy peaked in January, when Disney (through ABC and ESPN), CBS and Fox agreed to pay a mind-boggling $17.6 billion for broadcast rights to National Football League games.

Beyond being drawn to different genres, research indicates that men are generally less willing to commit time to an ongoing TV series and more apt to flip around during commercial breaks.

"Men have fewer appointment shows," says Kelly Kahl, CBS' vice president of scheduling, adding that with the exception of sports events--such as the recent National Collegiate Athletic Assn. basketball championship--"our ability to get men in front of the set is minimal."

Steve Kaufman, a 35-year-old Los Angeles attorney, represents an example of the challenge broadcasters face. Kaufman doesn't pay much attention to what's on the networks; indeed, he's hard-pressed to name a single new series that has premiered this season, other than Comedy Central's "South Park."

"I don't really have the time to care," he says. "If it's something worth seeing, I'll probably get wind of it eventually." The only series Kaufman makes a point of watching (and if necessary taping) is "Seinfeld." He'll tune in "NYPD Blue" if he's home.

"A normal day for me would be [ESPN's] 'SportsCenter' and [CBS' David] Letterman," he says. Recently added to that menu is Classic Sports Network, a cable channel that features a steady diet of great sports events from the past.

The gender disparity begins with simple math: Women outnumber men and generally watch more television. According to estimates by Nielsen Media Research, the average woman 18 and older--a population estimated at 100.6 million in the United States--tunes in 4 1/2 hours daily, about40 minutes more than average for the country's 92.3 million adult males.

"It's much easier to reach women any place on television. There's more of us and we spend more time watching," says Jean Pool, executive vice president of North American media-buying services at J. Walter Thompson. "It's just a fact and always has been that men are harder to reach on television than women."

The data become more significant when coupled with an anecdotal observation that hasn't eluded women or stand-up comics--namely, men are more likely to channel-surf, flipping idly from station to station.

"[A woman] will watch a two-hour movie, and the guy will watch 15 things during the same time," says Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research at USA Networks.

David L. Smith, president of entertainment at the survey research firm Frank N. Magid Associates, says men tend to pick about 11 channels they regularly view and check in on, compared to a "home base" of seven or eight channels for women.

Though both genders are prone to channel-surf, Smith notes, "women are much more dedicated to a show, to a channel, than men. . . . [Men] can't resist the ability to see what else is out there."

A Los Angeles Times poll conducted in September came to similar conclusions. In the survey, 4 of 10 men said they always or frequently change channels when a commercial comes on, compared to 28% of women; by contrast, 7% of men said they never flip around during a program, as opposed to 17% of women.

"Men are masters of the remote control, and they will surf more easily than women do. That's clearly a challenge," says Artie Bulgrin, vice president of research and sales development at cable sports network ESPN. "Sports, out of all the TV genres, is certainly the most vulnerable to switching."

In descending order, men polled by The Times cited network news, network sports, cable sports, movies, comedies and cable news as the programming they watched most. Women also led their list with network news but followed with comedies, dramas, soap operas and movies.

Women were more than twice as likely to mention dramas among their favorite forms of programming, while four times as many men chose sports. Based on a breakdown of prime-time network series, the current television season's No. 1 show among men, "Monday Night Football," doesn't crack the Top 20 with women.

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