Gender Neutral In A Sex-Specific World

By Kathy Tracy

Over the past few years, there has been an effort by many executives to broaden their demos by adopting a new mantra: “We are trying to become a little more gender neutral,” said Betsy McGowen, Kids’ WB general manager. “I’m guessing that we’re 80-85 percent boy right now and we’d like to be 60 percent boy and 40 percent girl,” McGowen said. “The programming for the fall is already in place so we obviously aren’t changing any of that. But in the last few scripts we’ve put in the process since I’ve come on board, we’ve added a little humor and are looking for things like that.”
Al Kahn, Chairman of 4Kids Entertainment, which produces Fox’s Saturday morning action cartoon block, 4KidsTV, admitted that gearing solely toward boys, as Fox has traditionally done, is not smart business. “We had a lot of tweaking to do. We are putting in a girls hour. I should say, two shows starring girls - Tokyo Mew-Mew and Winx Club. Whether or not that’s a girls’ hour is yet to be known.
“The reason for that block was two-fold: to get a better girl comp, but also because ABC on Saturdays is giving up that 8-9 a.m. slot to go with Good Morning America. So, because ABC is really a girls’ block, we thought the strategy was appropriate. We’re hopefully adding a higher level of kid friendly programming and the combination of these [things] will have a positive effect.”
Kahn said that his company’s long-term goal always was to be more gender neutral, despite the action-heavy theme. “Our thought process was always to get all the different segments - we want to be in pre-school, we want to be in girls, we want to be in boys. The question was: where do they air? Some of these things had been warehoused, pending a place that would make sense for them to air,” he said. “We also sell programming to other networks so we were going to pitch some of these programs to other nets which had the appropriate demography. But obviously when the ABC situation was announced, we felt that since we get such a low girl viewership it made sense to put the girls show onto the block as long as they sustained the action-adventure motif.”
Kahn explained his company’s business strategy: “Our road is more toward marketing concepts we believe have ancillary value off-network, because we do a lot of licensing. If you look at it from that perspective, you are only servicing half the kids’ population [with boy-heavy fare]. So, from a strategic position, we were not servicing half the target audience we professed to be involved with, which is kids.” He continued, “We are looking at anything that meets the criteria of: A) viable programming that supports play patterns - either toward boys, girls or preschoolers, and B) that we believe are based on some format or thematic success - whether they existed already or whether we believe their coming from a place that kids like to begin with - and we can build upon that success.”
Jim Samples of Cartoon Network Worldwide said his network isn’t necessarily taking a new approach by going after girls. “We accelerated the process this year because we needed to do a slight course correction. But mostly what you are seeing is a network coming of age and maturing. Cartoon Network is all about animation so we’re naturally boy-skewing. But to maximize ratings we need to be better balanced, so we have shifted. We are still action-oriented but we have added more comedic elements to become more gender balanced. As a result we have increased girls by 200 percent. But our boys have increased as well.” He continued, “It has been our strategy building on The Powerpuff Girls,” speaking of a new generation of cross-gender animation made possible by the property. “People thought it would never work but the action was so good that boys watched it. That taught us that it could be done. It is possible to reach boys and girls by using the right mix of action and relationships between the characters.”
Samples points to Teen Titans and Codename: Kids Next Door as animated series that have attracted both genders. “Teen Titans takes classic superheroes and brings them together in a new animation style influenced by animé. In Codename, the whole concept of an international kids’ organization with characters kids would want as friends, certainly resonates with both boys and girls. As a result we have seen tremendous growth around these two shows.”

Nickelodeon is also aiming more toward the middle, according to programming vice president, Pete Danielsen. “We are shifting a bit. We’ve made a conscious decision to be gender neutral. While some of our new programming some might veer boy, like Avatar, and some might veer girl, like Unfabulous, in the end we want it to appeal to both. We feel that a comedy like Ned is gender neutral and will appeal equally.”
Entering its third season on the air, NBC’s Discovery Kids was gender balanced from its inception, although not necessarily by design. General manager Marjorie Kaplan noted, “We thought we would skew boys. But I think the fact we don’t isn’t because the brand is inherently more one way or the other or that our shows are more inherently attractive to one or the other. I think it’s mostly an artifact of what it means to be on Saturday morning - we’re not shooting anybody.”
Traditionally, PBS has always reached out to both genders (in part because they target such young children), a strategy they claim will not change. Senior vp of programming, John Wilson, said that for the foreseeable future, PBS would not target kids beyond nine. “We have to fit our kids programming in between sun-up and the news hour, and as kids get older, they are a hard target to hit in those hours. With our limited resources of schedule and dollars, we think it’s smarter to aim where we know we have some traction.”