Television for women? Seems more like tunnel vision

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In the realm of female-targeted television, it seems that June is busting out all over with evolution and transformation. Just as Oxygen was throwing down the rebranding gauntlet to target something it's calling "Generation O" (not to be confused with "Generation No!"), Susanne Daniels — who did much to give Lifetime a 21st century makeover as its president of entertainment — announced she was leaving to have a more active hand in raising her three kids.

Also last week, the fledging Oprah Winfrey Network (or, appropriately, OWN) divulged that it had hired Regency Television president Robin Schwartz to be president of the network that's scheduled to launch during the latter half of 2009.

Somewhat less momentously, WE tv let it be known that on July 11 it would be airing the one-hour specials "Prince William: Sexy & Single" and "How to Marry a Prince." As the answer to the latter is said to involve kissing a frog, perhaps something could be worked out to make it a joint venture with Animal Planet.

What all of this means is, women's TV seems to be growing into a digital force unto itself. This is a bit bewildering to me. And while acknowledging that I'm hardly the target audience for any of this stuff, the ramping up of programming targeted to a single gender strikes me as antiquated and ultimately self-defeating — research be damned.

Allow me to add here that I think the male-centric Spike also is kind of a dumb idea, even for the ever-fragmented, niche-driven, mega-specialized, multi-tiered home entertainment universe in which we now live. But at least Spike is designed as almost something of a joke, serving stoners and horndogs and never claiming to be upping the sociological ante.

The same isn't true of Lifetime, Oxygen and WE, which believe they're going to ensnare young women with shows like "Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood" and taglines like Oxygen's new "Live Out Loud" (purportedly targeting women ages 18-49 who "like to look good, feel good and have fun living life on their own terms" — which really sounds more like a self-improvement seminar than a network).

Before Daniels joined Lifetime in 2005, the network's thrust was to my mind to serve post-40 women worried about breast cancer and abandonment. The one-time WB Network entertainment chief helped instill more of a younger vibe with such original series as "Army Wives" and "How to Look Good Naked" and the tragically canceled "Side Order of Life." She also took Lifetime's original movies out of the realm of women in jeopardy looking to get even with various slime-ball males. The strategy has largely worked, with the network's base growing somewhat younger and its image slightly less dorky.

Here is the problem, however, with all of these networks: By their very nature, they carry an air of exclusionary bias and tunnel vision. That isn't to say Lifetime in particular hasn't performed great public service in addressing women's issues, but the empowerment nonetheless remains imbued with a certain insular vibe.

The bottom line is that it's difficult to fathom how a network service can thrive over the long haul while removing one of two genders from the equation. There just aren't that many viewers to go around to exclude by design. This would seem especially true in terms of attracting the next generation of young women, who are barely inspired to watch TV in the first place. My 19-year-old daughter would no sooner watch a Lifetime show than she would pro wrestling.

At least Oxygen seems to get it, making wireless cell phone content a major part of its repositioned attempt to "break out of the pink pastel ghetto," as network president Jason Klarman noted last week. It would seem a wise strategy, as today's ghetto stands to devolve into tomorrow's forsaken anachronism.

Ray Richmond can be reached at ray.richmond@THR.com.
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