Where on TV are the Women Over 40? Increasingly, in the Boonies of Cable.
The rather unhappily squished cast of Hot in Cleveland.
In recent years, some TV industry-watchers have declared victory for older women on cable, writing that the explosion of original programming on cable channels has opened up opportunities for aging actresses to snag bigger, sexier roles.
And indeed, The Closer’s Kyra Sedgwick did usher in a spate of high-quality, high-profile roles for women over 40. For example: Holly Hunter on Saving Grace, Glenn Close on Damages, and more recently, Laura Linney on The Big C and Laura Dern on Enlightened. As a bonus, these women followed another trend as well: the anti-hero protagonist craze that hasn’t let up since The Sopranos. We got complex female characters who have both wrinkles and a few character flaws.
But the proliferation of cable programming hasn’t been all good for older women. There’s not a lot of evidence that ladies over 40 will keep the ground they’ve gained, either.
For starters, the channel TV Land has become a retirement home for sitcom hall-of-famers, and that’s a mixed blessing. On the one hand, experienced actresses such as Valerie Bertinelli, Fran Drescher, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick, and Betty White get secure jobs where they can do what they do best: be comfortably, predictably funny in front of studio audiences. And hey, it’s great to see them tackle age-appropriate problems: life after divorce and aging anxiety aren't brief asides on Hot in Cleveland and Drescher’s Happily Divorced, they're the main event. Wonderful, right? Now all the older folks can gather round the TV and enjoy a relatable half hour of laughs with their peers.
Great, except that The Golden Girls attracted more than 20 million viewers at its peak in the mid-‘80s—viewers of all ages, as evidenced by its continued popularity in syndication. Even at its peak, Hot in Cleveland garnered only about 4 million viewers, settling in at an average of closer to 2 million. Of course, nothing will ever come close to the ratings of those monster, mass hits of ‘80s TV, when we were all still forced to choose among just the big broadcast networks. But the niche programming that networks like TV Land provide means we’re less likely to see a mainstream hit that focuses on a marginalized group like older women.
Note that Courteney Cox's Cougar Town, one of the few network shows that focused on a woman who’s clearly, admittedly over 40, has now moved from ABC to the smaller TBS. And 30 Rock just ended its run with the probably-just-over-about-40 Liz Lemon adopting kids and settling down.
With so many niche channels available, networks have one more excuse not to program with or for audiences the top brass consider out of their station's plum demographics. Older viewers are now expected to get their fix on cable, the same way black viewers have been all but run off broadcast TV to TBS and BET. TV Land has, in essence, become the BET of over-40 audiences.
And even the cable networks who once went after those older women in hopes of duplicating The Closer’s success seem to be focusing on much younger ladies with their programming now in development. Homeland is the show to duplicate now, as evidenced by FX’s new hit The Americans, starring Keri Russell as a double agent; that same network’s coming attraction The Bridge, starring Diane Kruger as a detective; and Showtime’s Masters of Sex, starring Lizzy Caplan as sex researcher Virginia Johnson.
That's great news for getting more women as leading characters—but not such great news for the older ones.
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