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The Gender Flap

TELEVISION

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

The differences between men and women's viewing habits are also reflected in channels that specifically cater to each. Lifetime, the cable network that bills itself as "Television for Women," has put an emphasis on movies and series that the network either produces or acquires.

"Dramatic programming tends to hold its viewers with a greater degree of completeness than those shows that are easily interrupted," says Lifetime President and Chief Executive Doug McCormick. "We know that stories work best on Lifetime, even in message [issue-oriented] movies."

By contrast, ESPN (like Lifetime, partly owned by Disney and the Hearst Corp.) seeks to create an environment in which men can find either a game or highlights at any given hour.

"Most of our viewers will tell you when they're thinking of watching sports on television, the first place they'll turn is ESPN, really without much indication as to what's on," Bulgrin says. "In our case, they're tuning to the network more than a specific program."

Given that most TV viewers now receive, on average, nearly four dozen channels, McCormick likens the current state of television to radio, where viewers tune in a station seeking merely a certain style of music.

"You don't know exactly what you're going to hear, but you're going to hear something within the genre of your expectations for that station," McCormick says.

A Lifetime-commissioned study conducted last year found that the number of women who turn to the channel first has more than doubled since 1994. Lifetime's audience is about 70% women, mirroring the percentage of men in ESPN's sample. In addition, two-thirds of those men who watch Lifetime do so with a woman--again, in converse proportion to women viewing ESPN.

Certain advertisers, such as those marketing packaged goods and cosmetics, buy commercial time predicated solely on the number of women reached. In daytime television, most transactions are negotiated that way, even though men constitute about 30% of the audience. The ratio of men watching increases in prime time and peaks in late night.

Differences in viewing habits also cut across age and racial lines--one reason a channel like Nickelodeon has thrived, as children watch in one room while their parents seek out more adult fare elsewhere.

"You really are talking about a personal viewing phenomena," says Magid's Smith, pointing to an increase in homes that have not only multiple TV sets but more than one VCR. "That's going to greater segment the ratings."

One of the casualties gradually inflicted by such advances is family viewing, and the days when everyone crowded around one TV together to watch "Bonanza" or "The Cosby Show." With digital technology that promises to expand the number of channels further, the day may be coming, in fact, where Bruce Springsteen won't sing about "57 channels and nothing on" but rather a channel with something on--viewed alone--for each and every one of us.

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