His & Hers TV
TV channels, video games, and Internet sites zero in on girls and boys
LOS ANGELES — Check out these blanket statements: Boys like toy trucks, and girls like dolls. Right? Sometimes.
Or how's this: Men like sports, and women like emotional dramas. If you're a football widow, the former is a no-brainer. If you're a baby-boomer parent whose heart lies with gender-neutral child raising, both of these unsettling cultural stereotypes may cause you more than a bit of consternation.
The success of books such as John Gray's "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" suggests that gender-based cultural differences are at least back in vogue, if not always scientifically provable.
This growing emphasis on differences between the sexes raises the obvious possibility of commercial exploitation. Ever eager for a new demographic vein to mine, the electronic media are moving in with gusto.
Fox Family Channel premires the girlzChannel and the boyzChannel Oct. 31. Oxygen Media launches yet another women's cable channel Feb. 2 (or on 02-02-2000). Meanwhile, dozens of Web sites like www.Smartgirl.com and www.bChannel.com and www.gChannel.com (companions to the boyzChannel and girlzChannel), are targeting separate gender markets.
Original programming will include "bringing up boys" and "guiding girls," two half-hour programs for parents and children of each sex. Half-hour magazine-style shows such as "girlzopoliz" and "boyzopolis" will also deal with gender issues.
A parenting show called "Parentz101," features a companion Web site, parentzchannel.com. The channels will also feature a two-hour prime-time parenting block and a three-hour preschool block during the day.
Video games for girls
The video-game industry, long a bastion of boy-heavy marketing, is discovering girls with items such as the vast line of Barbie titles and the latest hit from Sony PlayStation, "Um Jammer Lammy," about a girls' rock band.
This rush to exploit the differences raises questions in the minds of many parents and media observers about what happens when the marketplace emphasizes differences rather than common interests.
The answer, say a wide range of industry analysts, media professionals, and watchdog organizations, is far from clear. But one thing is clear - the stakes are much higher when it comes to targeting children than adults.
"If everybody had their girls' and boys' channels," says longtime children's activist Peggy Charren, founder of the now-disbanded Action for Children's Television advocacy group, "it would be a disaster."
Picture a library with every book shelved under the heading boys' or girls' literature, Ms. Charren suggests.
"What kind of library would that be? We'd fire the librarian." Where, she asks, would you put the classics, books such as "Charlotte's Web" or "Stuart Little," by E.B. White, or any work by Charles Dickens or Marcel Proust?
"This is a return to an old, stereotyped idea that's sort of sad," she says, referring to the notion that certain content is appropriate for a boy and not a girl and vice versa.
Experts in the field of child development suggest the issue is more complicated than what they call "politically motivated interpretations" would allow.
"I had a practice in Cambridge, Mass., with all these intellectuals ... in the '60s," says T. Berry Brazelton, a renowned pediatrician who will host a parenting show on the new Fox Family channels.
"We were trying to make girls and boys just alike," Dr. Brazelton recalls with a laugh, suggesting that the very premise created as many problems as it solved.
"I knew it was going to fail, because at birth, girl babies and boy babies are significantly different in two respects," he says.
The first area relates to motor behavior. "It's not just that there's more motor behavior in a boy," he says, "but it's more vigorous and the boy obviously gets more satisfaction out of this vigorous behavior. The little girl sort of dreams as she goes into motor behavior."
As a result of the different types of activity, Brazelton says, adults respond differently to boys and girls. "We see that the identity of a child is really set up in those first few years," adding that children model their behavior during their earliest years.
The notion of developmental differences between boys and girls is based on sound scientific observation, Brazelton says. "And it's fascinating to see this develop and either get confirmed or not,. These channels have a chance to do either - confirm this attempt to solidify your identity or not."
"We're telling girls their voice is important," says Isabel Walcott, founder of SmartGirl Internette Inc., an online market-research firm.
Her Web site, Smartgirl.com, is the largest entertainment site for teenage girls on the Web, with more than 3,000 pages of content.
"Their voice as a consumer is important, especially if they can change things," Ms. Walcott says, pointing out that the interactive nature of the Web site allows for an exchange of opinions.
"We tell advertisers what the girls tell us, like, 'Your fancy clothing ads are showing malnutritioned girls,' " she adds.
The former computer consultant said she realized there was a need to target girls separately from boys when she noticed that boys and girls do not use technology the same way.
"Girls are extremely interested in exchanging information," she says.
Boys tend to use computers and video games for action and stimulation, she adds, whereas the girls are more drawn to discussions and activities that involve social interaction.
"Our site provides that for girls in an environment where they don't have to worry about boys' reactions," she says, although she adds with a laugh, "We know we have boys reading over our shoulder online."
"We feel that we can do these [channels] in a way that celebrates boys and girls, is very positive, and is not in any way stereotyping," asserts Rich Cronin, head of Fox Family Channel. Mr. Cronin points to what he calls an impressive roster of child-development experts that have been recruited for an advisory board.
"It's not going to be all action on the boyzChannel and all relationships on the girlzChannel," he says.
The programming will be diverse. "They will speak to girls and boys in a very special, targeted way," he says. Not just for kids
Targeting isn't just kid stuff. The adult market is divided by gender as well. "We've done it for adults for a long time," says Charren, the former children's activist.
"We just don't call it the boys channel - we call it wrestling or football or baseball."
Since market share is what the media is after, the issue is less controversial with gender-specific channels aimed at adults, such as Lifetime and a new venture from Oxygen Media headed by Geraldine Laybourne.
Ms. Laybourne, a former Nickelodeon executive and now chief executive officer of Oxygen, says her new channel fills a genuine need.
"More women than men watch network television," says Oxygen producer-television writer Marcy Carsey. "And far more men than women watch cable television ... [so] women are ... underserved, particularly on cable."
In many respects, the new emphasis on gender targeting arose from the need to balance an entertainment environment that has traditionally been skewed toward men.
But the targeting of children by gender on TV is a trend to which we ought to pay close attention, Charren says. "This is the generation that, when they grow up, they will be us, they will be the culture."
Children's television is too effective a Pied Piper to be determined only by the marketplace.
"With children, you're leading them to who they're going to be when they grow up," she says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society