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National NOW Times >> Summer, 2000 >> Article

TV's Fall Line-up: Progress or Problematic for Women?

by Rebecca Farmer, Press Secretary, and Lisa Bennett Haigney, Communications Director

NOW put primetime network television programming in the spotlight with the May release of the Watch Out, Listen Up! results. Cheers and jeers went out to ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC based on program content.

Response to the campaign was huge and mostly positive. NOW chapters across the country held actions to bring attention to violence and sexual exploitation of women on TV. Many people wrote and called to say how frustrated they are with the portrayal of women in the media and the limited roles they occupy.

Future targets of the Watch Out, Listen Up! campaign may include television advertising, radio and the Internet.

Primetime Update
As summer draws to a close, the networks are announcing their fall line ups with new shows that could make or break their grade in NOW's media watch. Here's a network by network look at what this fall's new shows hold in store for the feminist TV audience.

ABC came in third in NOW's Feminist Primetime Report, but its lineup includes such feminist favorites as Once & Again and The Practice. Gender composition and social responsibility were this network's high scores in the report, but it looks as though the new ABC programs will not all meet this standard.

Promising: ABC's dramas have been winning points for the network, but one new comedy looks promising. The Geena Davis Show features a career woman who enters a relationship with a widower and father of two children. Her success as a professional, independent woman could provide a great role model, if the Davis lead character isn't confined to the stereotypical woman as nurturer or supermom role.

Business As Usual: Madigan Men and The Trouble with Normal have been marketed as male-dominated shows like much of primetime network programming. The Trouble with Normal's woman character stands alone in boy land, while Madigan Men is an all male cast whose only diversity is an inter generational component a grandfather and a grandson who try to find a woman for their middle aged son/father. If you're looking for programming that includes women of color or diverse sexual orientations, ABC's new fall shows are not the place to turn.

It All Depends: Gideon's Crossing, another addition to the medical drama genre, features an African American doctor in the lead role, but only two women in a cast of ten lead characters. If the show gives prominent play to these women doctors and continues ABC's attention to important social issues, feminist viewers may stay tuned.

Last season CBS, which ranked second in NOW's analysis, introduced several new programs that performed well in NOW's Watch Out, Listen Up! analysis shows like Judging Amy, Family Law and City of Angels. This season may also have a few stand outs that deserve a look. The casts appear to be more diverse than usual, in both race and age. Male cast members still outnumber women, but it appears there may be some new entertainment for the feminist viewer on CBS.

Promising: Bette, starring Bette Midler, and Welcome to New York, starring Christine Baranski, both feature mature female stars in roles as successful women. Baranski is the real-life producer of her own program and has already promised not to play the cliched hysterical female executive. Let's hope these two strong performers demand material that rises above the usual sit com level. That's Life-with four female stars, including the esteemed Ellen Burstyn-sounds interesting: a blue collar woman calls off her engagement and decides to go back to school where she encounters the privileged set.

Business As Usual: Even the title of Yes, Dear sounds stereotypical, as does the description of the lead characters: a working dad and a neurotic stay at home mom. CBS says that the father's most difficult job "may be keeping his wife calm. . ." The Fugitive is a remake of the original 60s series and the popular movie. Although there is racial diversity in the cast, the lead characters are all male and the plot still revolves around a murdered woman.

It All Depends: In CSI, a show about crime scene investigators, the female lead is the great Marg Helgenberger from China Beach. But the program is another focusing on violent situations. As we've seen with shows like NBC's Law & Order, a crime show can mostly avoid exploitation and address important social issues. CSI might be a respectable pot-boiler or it might choose to wallow in blood and guts. The District has a racially diverse cast (as any show set among the local city-workers of D.C. should), but only two women are listed in the cast compared with five men. The potential here for covering social issues is great. The plot description, however, sounds more like Walker, Texas Ranger than NYPD Blue, and the premise, a white police chief coming in to root out corruption in a majority-black department, could be problematic if not handled carefully.

NOW named FOX a Network of Shame when it ranked last in the Watch Out, Listen Up! analysis. The X Files, Party of Five and That 70's Show are three FOX programs that did make the grade with NOW's content monitors. If the new fall line up follows in the footsteps of these shows, with impressive gender composition, social responsibility and positive female role models, FOX may redeem itself from its bottom of the barrel status.

Promising: Boston Public is based on the lives of teachers in Boston public schools. The cast is diverse along gender and racial lines and promises to tackle social issues that teachers face in educating today's youth. American High, a reality show documenting the lives of actual teenagers, has the potential to shed light on the trials young women face from violence and sexual harassment to racism and reproductive decision making. Under FOX's new President Gail Berman, Boston Public and American High could be complementary programs, two sides of one coin that may bring feminist viewers of all ages back to the FOX network.

Business As Usual: Glorification of white collar sexism permeates FOX ads for The Street. In one program preview, a young career woman steps into an elevator only to have the man standing behind her whisper to a friend "This elevator isn't the only thing going up." In the office, the man finds the object of his desire to be his new boss. The message is that no matter how successful you are, you can't escape the clutches of sexism and that sexual harassment is always a given. In Opposite Sex, three young men at an otherwise all-women school taints a potentially women friendly, woman-positive theme with men's sexual fantasies. For a show that advertises "Find out what happens when girls rule the school," the camera in Opposite Sex focuses predominantly on the three boys. FOX's web site promotes Dark Angel with: "Women envy her. You'll want her." This sci-fi, post-apocalyptic program may have a strong woman as the lead character, but the network's promotion of the show focuses heavily on her physical attributes and addresses itself to men. The Lone Gunmen, an X-Files spin-off, is about government conspiracies and, with the exception of one woman character, makes no attempt to break out of the white male mold.

It All Depends: Freaky Links will feature two women and three men in a cyber, sci-fi drama. Depending on how the program builds its female characters in the boy-filled electronic world, Freaky Links may entice feminist sci-fi fans. Schimmel, a family comedy about a dad raising two teenage daughters, could give feminist issues some primetime play, but the seemingly peripheral role of their mother might bring this program down. And Goodman, starring Roseanne's John Goodman, features a single dad raising teenagers. Although it's been reported that Goodman's character will be gay, FOX has not promoted this twist.

NBC came in first in the Feminist Primetime Report, receiving high ratings for gender composition, social responsibility and the low level of sexual exploitation in shows like ER, Law & Order and Will & Grace. Much like the other networks, however, NBC's new shows lack racial and gender diversity. With so many programs aimed at men, women viewers may stray from NBC.

Promising: Daddio, a comedy about a stay-at-home dad, is one of two domestic-related shows that stand alone as potential highlights in NBC's lineup of new programs. Daddio's portrayal of a dad "trying to find his way in a mom's world" may successfully show that child-rearing is not just a mom thing, but that dads can do it too. This program's role-reversal could serve as a reminder that gender stereotypes do not define the world and should not hold women, or men, back, and not simply a glorification of single dads at a time when single moms are frequently vilified. Tucker tells the tale of a 14-year-old boy being raised by his newly divorced mom. The show surrounds one teenage boy with numerous strong women characters, a rarity in the television world. The program will focus not only on the trials of a boy whose father has just abandoned him, but also on his aunt, mother and the sassy girl next door. This classmate-next-door neighbor character is described as a savvy girl and feminist role model for teens.

Business As Usual: Titans, a new drama from the usually un-feminist Aaron Spelling, looks like a primetime soap opera devoid of any attention to feminist issues or social responsibility. Titans has been marketed more with the lead female character's scantily-clad body than with insight into the show's content. All we know about the content so far is that the lead male character, billed as the "prodigal son," returns home from overseas to find that his new stepmother, the scantily-clad lead female character, is the woman with whom he previously had a steamy affair. Deadline is about an investigative journalist who, according to network promos, has "three ex-wives and a bad attitude toward authority" so that "nothing is ever easy in [his] life." Deadline sounds like a macho program that could do NBC's feminist ratings more harm than good. Dag, a comedy about a Secret Service Agent assigned to the First Lady, looks like a program that will have feminist eyes rolling before long. NBC's web site describes this Agent's duties to include "running errands, organizing luncheons and walking the dog." This description trivializes the major role that a First Lady can play in the national political scene and implies that women's concerns are confined to minor domestic matters. NOW dreams of a show about a Secret Service Agent assigned to a woman political leader that addresses issues women in power face trying to create change from the inside.

It All Depends: Although The Michael Richards Show and The Steven Weber Show do not seem offensive or anti-feminist, the number of shows titled "The (fill in guy's name) Show" keeps growing. Feminists are uninterested in the same-old, same-old. TV needs more programs that reflect women in all our diversities.

UPN and the WB networks were not monitored in the Watch Out, Listen Up! campaign. Here is a look at the new shows they have scheduled for the fall TV season.

Promising: Girlfriends chronicles four best friends, who stick together through thick and thin. This is the only new show on any network to feature four African American women as lead characters and promises to addresses numerous aspects of their lives. These strong women characters could potentially provide positive role models for TV viewers.

Business As Usual: Freedom looks like another macho, violent, futuristic program with mostly male characters. This program's content appears limited to fighting and more fighting. NOW goes out on a limb and predicts this show to fare poorly with feminist viewers.

Business As Usual: Young Americans looks like the WB's white bread attempt to reach a limited population of U.S. TV-watching teenagers. This show's diversity is limited to a cross-dressing girl who wants to have the same education as the boys and a girl who serves as the token poor person. The show could turn out to be an extended Tommy Hilfiger ad unless it takes on the real issues that teenagers face.

These reviews are based on information available to the general public through TV promotions and on network web sites.

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