A funny thing has happened to the teen girl network. It has gone from the go-to destination for shows about pretty, wealthy teens wearing designer clothes, to a younger, female-skewing SyFy channel.
The CW seems to have learned from the phenomenal success of “Vampire Diaries,” which outperforms “Gossip Girl,” “90210,” and “Hellcats” by a large margin. After many years on the air, “Smallville” and “Supernatural” are still among the network’s highest rated shows despite their difficult Friday timeslots. In contrast, “Life Unexpected” a relatively realistic character driven dramedy was the lowest rated series on the network. “Nikita,” the spy series that was supposed to signal the network’s new direction as a destination for sophisticated, darker series about twenty-something women, has already been retooled in response to ratings that failed to meet the network’s high expectations.
It should come as no surprise that young women viewers are flocking to sci-fi and fantasy shows with female protagonists. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was one of the biggest hits on the CW’s predecessor, the WB. “Twilight” and other supernatural books and movies are popular among young women. Yet, television has persisted in thinking of so-called genre shows as male territory.
Though there are plenty of women who watch critically acclaimed scripted SyFy channel series like “Eureka” and “Warehouse 13,” the network has attempted to widen its appeal to female viewers by broadening its programming to include shows that are not, strictly speaking, SyFy. A pitch to potential advertisers in Ad Age magazine reads, “And by adding a rich slate of original reality programming to our acclaimed scripted originals, we’ve become more gender-balanced than ever before; nearly half of our audience is female.” Indeed, SyFy’s newest program is a reality competition for special-effects make-up artists, a premise whose connection to science fiction is at best tenuous. Left unexplained is why the network is opting to reach out to women through reality series rather than scripted sci-fi programs.
The CW, in contrast, targets its shows with a supernatural bent to women, though it is undoubtedly thrilled that plenty of men are tuning in to watch Superman and vampires. Their formula: strong, three-dimensional female characters and beautiful men. It is obviously working, which makes the appeal of “The Awakening” obvious. It’s surprising that SyFy has not employed a similar programming strategy.
So why are young women preferring the supernatural to shopping? Perhaps the recession has made conspicuous consumption less entertaining. Blair Waldorf’s wardrobe is less aspirational in an era of double digit unemployment. Perhaps it’s that the supernatural shows are simply more interesting. Life and death situations are more exciting than storylines about social status. “90210’s” Adrianna’s struggle to be a famous singer seems superficial when compared to Elena’s quest to save her friends and family’s lives on “Vampire Diaries.”
Perhaps it’s that supernatural shows work no matter what age the characters are, while shows about teen life tend to run into trouble once the characters graduate from high school. “Smallville” has smoothly transitioned from a high school series set in Smallville to a story about twenty-somethings set in Metroplolis thanks to its rich mythology while “Gossip Girl” has lost some of its appeal once it left the rigid social structure of prep school. Perhaps it’s that ABC Family has usurped The CW as the home of the best traditional teen dramas like “Pretty Little Liars,” leaving the youthful supernatural arena as the one thing it does better than anyone else.
Whatever the reason, if “The Awakening” is picked up to series and becomes a hit, the network could fill its schedule with the young, female version of all types of sci-fi and supernatural shows. Imagine a series about a group of incorrigible teens sent to boarding school on a remote planet in the hope that some strict alien teachers can discipline them. The CW may have finally found its unexpected niche as a purveyor of women’s genre drama.