Networks seek out young male audiences

Published: Friday, January 13, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 10:29 p.m.
Gone are the days when female protagonists such as Ally McBeal and Carrie Bradshaw ruled the tube. The quixotic sentiment is still there, but these days, Ally is a metro-sexual man, her micro mini supplanted by multi-layered layered T-shirts, tailored blazers and product-sculpted hair.
Despite his seemingly complete life, good career, coterie of trusty friends and gym-enhanced physique, all he really wants is the right woman with whom to share the rest of his life.
"Men are the new women," laughingly says Max Mutchnick, co-executive producer of one of the latest guy-centered shows, "Four Kings."
"I'm so bored with guys on TV portrayed as kegger-crazed Neanderthals. It's refreshing writing for men too old to live with their parents and too young to be married."
Mutchnick isn't alone. Several TV networks are eager to invest time, money and promotional muscle in romantic, fraternal and funny young-dude sitcoms.
Developing smart, youthful comedies for men is lucrative, too - or at least that's what network execs are gunning for.
The powers that be are hoping such programming will inspire the elusive, young Y-chromosome viewer to turn off his Xbox and iPod long enough for advertisers to grab his attention.
"Males ages 18 to 34 and 18 to 49, for that matter, have long been a desirable demo for TV networks," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University's Newhouse School.
Over in the cable world, when networks have catered, men have come. For instance, OLN (Outdoor Life Network), which used to be basic cable's boring, old outdoor network featuring fogies who fished their lives away, traded in its format for something younger and fresher.
Now, the network is more like Spike TV, picking up a contract to air NHL games and adding original programs such as the "extreme" road-trip show "Park Raving Mad." The switch has been a boon for OLN, which has witnessed its ratings double in a year's time, says Marc Fein, OLN's senior vice president of programming and production.
Primetime networks want to harness the same ratings power for their sitcom offerings without sacrificing appeal to the also-lucrative young-women demographic.
These same female viewers are expected to tune in for the character development, eye candy and lovey-dovey storylines, making the young-dude genre an even more desirable pursuit, Thompson says.
"If the networks can get these shows to work, they will crossover and find success with women, but the key demographic - young men - has to tune in first," he says.
This fall, the networks got the trend rolling with the debut of the young-dude show "How I Met Your Mother." The sitcom gets an average of 10.5 million viewers weekly.
"Freddie," which follows a young chef looking for love, gets about 8.5 million viewers.
Such ratings numbers, relatively successful for sitcoms in this drama/reality era of TV, paved the way for other shows with romantic male protagonists and funny sidekicks.
Michael Rauch is the executive producer of "Love Monkey," a new hour-long romantic comedy starring Jason Priestley and Thomas Cavanagh.
Rauch has hopes for "Love Monkey," which features Cavanagh playing a record executive who loves his friends and his career but just can't seem to find the love of his life. Although Rauch contends his show and others are more than "Sex and the City" knockoffs with males in the lead, the writing still is the key ingredient.
"If we're not funny, it doesn't matter what the show is about or who we're trying to attract," Rauch says. "It was important to me and the writers and producers to do 'Love Monkey' in an authentic way." The people behind the midseason sitcom "Jake in Progress" also saw a need for its leading man to authentically connect with its desired audience.
Whereas Jake was originally a caricature of a slick ladies' man when the show debuted last year, this year he's a character with vulnerabilities, says the actor who plays him, sitcom-vet John Stamos.
"We wanted to make Jake more approachable," says Stamos. "He's a ladies' man, but he's been hurt before and dumped by the love of his life. It's a male-driven romantic comedy, something TV audiences want again." Although Stamos, 42, plays Jake, a New York publicist and not Jesse, the aspiring rock star from his '90s ABC family sitcom "Full House," both characters are heartthrobs with hearts of gold.
But "Jake in Progress" is more a serious portrayal of men, something Stamos enjoys.
"I want to be the not-so-perfect guy who doesn't always get the girl because that's who I am in real life," he says. Another lure common in this trend is the horndog everyman sidekick, i.e. Neil Patrick Harris as Barney on "How I Met Your Mother," airing Mondays.
Harris, 32, first transitioned from his dorky-Doogie-glory days to young-dude coolness when he played an inebriated, randy version of himself in the movie "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle."
On "Freddie," Brian Austin Green, 32, the "90210" star who once pursued a rap career, is the perfect sidekick and comic foil for Freddie Prinze Jr., 29, the show's protagonist and romantic straight-man. The show airs Wednesdays. And last but not least - unless you're talking about height - there's Seth Green, 31, another face from TV past looking to cash in on his pop-culture coolness.
Execs and producers hope the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" vet's dude appeal, also witnessed in the "Austin Powers" movies and his voice work on Fox's animated-sitcom "Family Guy," will help make "Four Kings" a hit.
"To keep viewers, you can't just make them laugh, you have to establish characters they are comfortable with so that they come back, and Seth is one of those actors," says David Kohan, the show's other executive producer. He and Mutchnick previously brought NBC a little hit called "Will & Grace."
Green also strikes a chord among guys younger than 40 with his bizarro animated comedy "Robot Chicken" on Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim."
"Seth is the eternal man-child," Kohan says. "('Four Kings') is an ensemble show, but Seth will be the one who people become comfortable with first." Whether it'll be the writing, romantic leads or funny sidekicks that draw in viewers, producers have high hopes for this genre.
"Cop shows have dominated TV as of late, and I think men and women are looking for relationship shows again," Rauch says of "Love Monkey."
"Society needs more boy-meets-girl comedies."

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