Women may now outnumber men on the Internet, but online entertainment is still a man's world.
A recent report from Media Metrix and Jupiter Communications says women make up 50.4 percent of the online population. But look at the Web's leading entertainment sites: Entertaindom, Icebox and Shockwave.com, which are the top buyers and developers of entertainment content, all feature shows that are heavy on violence and scatological humor. The closest thing to an entertainment "hit" online might be any of the spoofs on Budweiser's "Wassup" ads, or the microwaved-gerbil from Joe Cartoon. Not exactly the stuff women drop everything to see.
According to the report, women aren't interested in hanging out online to watch a three-minute animation. The largest group of women online, those from age 25 to 44, are interested in information, services and, occasionally, community features like chat. "They basically want to get on and get off [the Net quickly]," says Anya Sacharow, an analyst at Jupiter.
The three major women's sites certainly aren't pushing original multimedia programming onto the Web. Oxygen, the most likely candidate because of its sister cable network, features some clever animated shows (such as Avenue Amy with its Sex And the City sensibility). But its lineup is little more than a teaser for the cable network. IVillage and Women.com aren't big buyers or developers of online shows. And LifetimeTV.com, the online arm of Lifetime Television ("Television for Women"), has only one original series in the works, a 13-episode romantic drama scheduled for this fall.
"When women get a spare minute, they're online searching for something for their kids," says Jessica Marshall, general manager of LifetimeTV.com. The rest of Lifetime's online video efforts will be focused on providing a searchable Web-based library of its service television shows. Beth Colt says it shouldn't be that way. She sees a kind of chicken-and-egg problem at work. "Women are an important market in television, but no one is specialized in women's content the way Carsey-Werner Productions is in sitcoms and others are in other niches," Colt says. She is developing a roster of online programming that she believes will whet women's appetites for Web-based entertainment.
A Harvard MBA, Colt came to the Web via film producing. She has overseen actor Sam Waterston's made-for-TV movie projects and, most recently, she produced and had a supporting part in Artisan Entertainment's Chuck & Buck. That independent film gave her an idea. "It was made on digital film and had a small crew, and it got me thinking about digital and the Internet," she says.
Knowing almost nothing about the Internet and with only a vague idea that she wanted to focus on women, she hooked up with former Paramount Digital Entertainment exec Chris Tragos and the two launched Brash in the spring.
They're working with a small budget - $1.5 million from Anaconda Capital, which Brash received last week - and they expect it to last through the end of the year.
Brash will start with three shows - all of which fall under the heading of reality programming. Under the Belly was inspired by the Learning Channel's popular series A Baby Story, which features a live birth on every show. What's different about Under the Belly is that it won't shy away from the most graphic and brutal aspects of childbirth. "A Baby Story is a nice show," says Colt, "but it has a sweetness to it." Brash plans to leave sweetness to the TV networks.
The second series on the slate is Go Jane Doe, in which a journalist works undercover in different professions; the first one explores the hard-knock life of a stripper. Despite the profession in question, Go Jane Doe will take a sympathetic look at its subjects and avoid being lurid. And the third show is Watch a Date, a ripoff of Universal's syndicated series Blind Date, in which an actual date is taped and edited to highlight its most painfully awkward moments. Just as with Under the Belly, Watch a Date is unflinching and boasts a higher squirm factor than does its somewhat sanitized TV counterpart.
So far, Brash hasn't been able to sell any of its shows. Maybe that's because it's pushing buttons that don't need to be pushed. There may be a reason why A Baby Story and Blind Date are toned down; for all the "reality" such series showcase, above all they still must entertain and engage viewers without offending them.
Still, Watch a Date and Under the Belly are a far cry from microwaving gerbils.
Online developers say they lean on lewd, crude humor because that's what works.
They say that the confines of a four-minute show - currently the maximum length of most online programming - doesn't permit much in the way of narrative and character development. That's why online entertainment is filled with flat characters and crude jokes. And, as they point out, men like that stuff and men are the bulk of the entertainment audience.
"We're still pandering to the Wassup kids and the Napster generation," admits Vinny Carrella, CEO of Jinx, a San Francisco-based developer of online programming. Jinx's Little Green Men, about, you guessed it, little green men (2-inches tall and from Pluto) currently runs on Warner Bros.' Entertaindom site.
Romp.com in Los Angeles also went for the guy-humor sensibility. Among the most notoriously male-oriented sites, Romp.com apes Maxim magazine's testosterone-heavy pose with shows like Tit Talk, Booty Call and Girl of the Week, a pinup feature. Co-founder Bruce Forman says that when he was forming the company with Michael Eisner's son Eric, the two chose the male demographic because that's where the majority of the online audience is. "[Guys] were already looking to the Web for unrestrained, freewheeling entertainment," he says. Like Colt, Forman and Eisner have also used the Web to push the boundaries of accepted content. Surprisingly, Forman reports that it's not just appealing to guys; 20 percent of the audience on Romp is female.
It's a pretty sure bet that there will be entertainment in some form for women online, but from an economic standpoint adult women don't present as compelling an audience for advertisers as do some other demographics. For now, if any female audience is popular with programmers, it's teen girls, the most potentially profitable subgroup online. The worth of their pocketbooks is north of $75 billion and there are at least 15 million of them (not all online yet), a record number since the baby boom. Furthermore, they're extremely comfortable with the Internet, having grown up with it and having used it to socialize. All that money they have is disposable, since unlike their older counterparts, most of them don't have financial responsibilities.
At least a dozen well-funded sites will vie for these girls' attentions in the coming months. Voxxy.com launched earlier this year, and this fall will debut an original series produced by and starring actress Jennifer Aniston.
Sweet16.com just launched with the backing of Britney Spears. MXGonline.com is a cross-media play for teen girls that also publishes a print magazine.
Kibu.com boasts a strong board, including International Creative Management CEO Jeff Berg. And developers all say that teen girls are their next target.
That will be quite an image shift for the Web. From beer-guzzling would-be couch potatoes to girls reading advice columns about boys. If it's true, as Web-show developers say, that women want developed characters and more complex storylines, online entertainment still has a way to go.