Brian Lowry

What do women want? Lord knows I'm the wrong person to ask, but from a TV standpoint, anyway, the answer to that question appears in an inordinate state of flux. Television for women is a strange term for starters, since the vast majority of primetime TV aims squarely at them. Nevertheless, traditional formats, personalities and niche channels geared to women find themselves at a perplexing crossroads.

Women still watch considerably more television than men -- by almost 16 hours per month, according to the latest Nielsen Cross-Platform Report. Yet how they allocate video time keeps shifting, as the daytime soap opera -- a genre more uniquely linked to women than perhaps any other -- is slowly disappearing, just as the made-for-TV movie has been seriously diminished.

Meanwhile, some of TV's biggest names associated with women -- including Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart -- have exhibited surprising vulnerability, whether in the moribund beginning for Winfrey's cable network, OWN, or Stewart's lackluster results on Hallmark. In short, if women were once deemed at least moderately predictable in media-buying circles, it's hard to find a sure thing anymore whether the discussion revolves around major brands or venerable genres.

Part of this has to do with the homogenizing pursuit of younger demographics -- namely, adult women under 50 -- and their evolving profile and preferences. That includes a generation of millennials weaned on reality TV and adept at suspending disbelief long enough to consume unscripted fare as if it were a soap or romantic comedy, no matter how much staging is involved. No wonder those cable networks purporting to be "for women" currently look a trifle schizophrenic and confused.

Lifetime clearly feels pressure to get younger, but it's hard to discern a coherent strategy in the channel's current programming mix beyond the flimsy glue of women usually occupying centerstage. Boiled down to stereotypes, Oxygen would be the home of young and likely inebriated women, while TLC caters to those with a fascination for the British royal family, people who have children in litters or the bizarre. (See their just-announced special about end-of-days believers, "Livin' for the Apocalypse.")

By contrast, Bravo possesses a cleverly articulated, media-savvy persona -- playing to upscale women and their gay pals, usually in fabulous, high-stress surroundings. Yet even that network has recycled its formula to the point of potentially depleting the supply, much less the reality, of "Real Housewives." Finally, OWN is positioning itself as the study guide for Winfrey's "Live your best life" philosophy. At the TV Critics Assn. tour, the retired host/full-time mogul spoke about using the channel to create "the world's biggest classroom." While it's fine to uplift and educate, that description sounds like something you'd watch to avoid attending traffic school.

All these channels are book-ended by a junior demographic swatch extending from teens through young women (Disney Channel, ABC Family, MTV) and an AARP tier frequented by their moms and grandmothers, who are still happy to sit through a Hallmark movie or, for that matter, network series like "Dancing with the Stars," "Blue Bloods" and "Harry's Law." Viewed this way, the notion of structuring networks under the umbrella "women" seems increasingly flawed, as are most attempts to design TV options around such broad categories in today's wildly fragmented marketplace. (Notably, younger men are perceived to be such Neanderthals that beyond football, whatever else is on ESPN or raunchy comedy, they merit dwindling episodic consideration.)

Given the central role women play throughout TV's ecosystem, programmers and producers no doubt wish they could peer into their minds, sort of like Mel Gibson in that movie, but the cacophony of variety would likely be overwhelming. Barring that, the best advice is to cue the theme from "The Young and the Restless," then use it as background music while outdated assumptions pirouette into the sunset.