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TNN, take a look -- TV's already a guy thing

June 23, 2003|Martha M. Lauzen | Martha Lauzen is a professor in the School of Communication at San Diego State. She conducts annual studies of women working on screen and behind the scenes in film and television.

Pity the deprived male television viewer. According to Susan King's article "A Cable Station Mans the Battle Lines" (June 16), programmers at the revamped TNN claim that men have no television channel to call their own. To remedy this oversight, they intend to provide one-stop shopping for the male viewer looking for entertainment and information.

But the creation of such a channel is hardly necessary as television has traditionally catered to the male audience in spite of the fact that women make up the majority of viewers each and every night of the week. "Underserved" male viewers in search of testosterone-friendly programming can turn to any one of the six broadcast networks and a variety of cable channels, including Comedy Central, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, Fox Sports Net, Fox Sports Net 2, FX, the Golf Channel, MTV and the Playboy Channel.

Ample academic research dating back to the 1950s documents the male-oriented nature of television, particularly broadcast television. My own study of prime-time programming airing on the six major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, WB, UPN) last year reveals a schedule deeply and pervasively infused with a male sensibility.

The study, which examined one randomly chosen episode of every situation comedy and drama airing during the 2002-03 prime-time season, revealed that only 38% of all characters were female. Female characters were more likely to be identified by traditional markers of feminine worth such as marital status and tended to be younger than their male counterparts. Women over 40 constituted only 11% of all characters, while men over 40 accounted for 29% of all characters. Further, male characters were more likely than female characters to have an identifiable goal and to be portrayed as leaders. For example, 100% of characters holding political office or serving as religious leaders in our sample were male.

With women accounting for only 22% of all creators, executive producers, producers, directors, writers, editors and directors of photography last season, a male sensibility permeated every aspect of programming -- from the language patterns characters used to the occupations they held.

While women (and men) have brought a number of multidimensional and interesting female characters to the small screen over the years, the female sensibilities that make it on the air are clearly overwhelmed by the avalanche of male-skewing programming on both broadcast and cable television, with the possible exceptions of those channels deliberately targeting female viewers, such as Lifetime and WE (Women's Entertainment).

King's article states that the first original programming block for the new TNN (whose efforts to change its name to Spike TV have been tied up in court by filmmaker Spike Lee) consists of "Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon," "Gary the Rat" and "Stripperella," featuring Pamela Anderson's voice and physical assets. These shows assume the absolute least of male viewers, delivering content in a format intended for the average 8-year-old.

Shouldn't a substantial portion of the intended male audience feel more than a little insulted by a channel that believes the best way to target them is by airing cartoons? Shouldn't they expect more from a channel designed specifically for their interests than Pamela Anderson's cartoon double playing a stripper-superhero? Does TNN really fill a programming void that hasn't been addressed by Howard Stern or Tom Green? And doesn't this programming denigrate male viewers just as weepy romances and victim-of-the-week stories pigeonhole female viewers?

Think of it this way: Watching TNN is like dating someone who thinks less of you than you think of yourself. Is that really the foundation for a long and satisfying relationship, or a morbid curiosity that can be sated with a one-night stand?

Finally, why would a woman viewer such as me care what low-brow programming TNN or any other channel or network beams to the male audience? I'm not a right-winger who finds this sort of programming morally objectionable, and I'm not in favor of censorship. If certain viewers don't mind seeing themselves reflected as unnaturally dumb, they can knock themselves out and watch a steady diet of this new channel.

But industry standards that allow male viewers to be held in such low esteem affect female viewers as well. Programming designed to keep men firmly rooted in a dysfunctional place does the same to women. By digging its ideological heels in stereotypic terra firma, TNN doesn't offer anything new, just more of the same.

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