What viewers won't see are shopping sprees, moneyed teenagers or flirty scenes with cute guys.
The show reflects new thinking among television network executives: Their core audience—female viewers—want to see a woman take down the enemy, preferably with a little bloodshed along the way. The approach overturns years of belief that violent shows turn off women who prefer to watch earnest nurses, headstrong housewives or quirky career women.
Viewers who grew up with video games and Angelina Jolie action movies are driving the types of shows networks will debut this month and redefining how the classic TV heroine is portrayed. On Sept. 9 the CW network will debut "Nikita," about a rogue assassin, played by Maggie Q. In the coming weeks NBC will premiere "Chase" about U.S. Marshal Annie Frost and "Undercovers" about a husband-and-wife spy team. In July USA introduced "Covert Affairs" about a 28-year-old CIA trainee who speaks six languages.
Ever since TV began as a way to sell detergent to housewives, networks have tried to stay in tune with changing preferences among women, who watch more TV than men. Female characters evolved from June Cleaver to Murphy Brown and Ally McBeal.
The networks need to refresh their lineup of dramas for women as several big shows are aging. In the season that ended in May, 12.5 million viewers watched "Desperate Housewives" each week down from 23.4 million in 2004. "Grey's Anatomy" and "Gossip Girl" have also declined in popularity, Nielsen says.
That's prompted networks to dig deeper into the female psyche. Last spring, the CW network, known for such soapy female-targeted shows as "Gossip Girl" and "90210," which follow the trials of privileged youth in Manhattan and Beverly Hills, respectively, commissioned a nation-wide study into what women in their 20s and 30s want. More than 60% of the network's viewers are women, mostly between the ages 18 to 34.
Market researchers asked groups of 10 to 12 women gathered at local coffee shops or a friend's house as well as in traditional focus groups in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Denver to make collages of magazine images they liked. They chose Jennifer Aniston paddle boarding over actresses lying on the beach in bikinis. They preferred absinthe and beer to wine or fruity pink cocktails and gravitated to toned athletes in fitness magazines over models in evening gowns.
They also thought men had gotten wimpier and associated the opposite sex with the bumbling losers played by Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen in recent romantic comedies. "It was obvious that these women feel like they have to take charge and be the hero," says Jane Buckingham, president of Trendera, the market research and trend forecasting firm that conducted the study.
Action shows are hard to pull off, and any overly brutal scenes that could be perceived as gratuitous will turn off female viewers, network executives say. There's also a kitsch factor to worry about. TV works with much smaller budgets than movies. With viewers accustomed to seeing slick, expensive stunts and computer-generated enhancements, anything less can look campy.
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TV has experimented with action heroines in the past with shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Alias," but those shows largely avoided anything too gritty. "Nikita" executive producer Craig Silverstein says he was hesitant when TV studio Warner Bros. asked him to re-imagine "Nikita," inspired by the French film "La Femme Nikita" which also spawned U.S. movie "Point of No Return" and a 1997 series on the USA network.
"It's not going to be 'Gossip Girl' with a gun. She's going to kill people. Are they okay with that?" Mr. Silverstein says he asked studio executives.
To test the waters, market researcher Ms. Buckingham showed the groups of young women different images of Nikita. Sexy poses in skimpy bikinis were okay, as long as the bathing suit served a purpose—like in one scene when she sneaks into a pool party to kill a gangster. They preferred sexy outfits that were the result of a vicious fight such as a shredded T-shirt. A too-skimpy outfit, prompted the group to ask: "But where would she put her gun?"
The findings surprised network executives. "We weren't sure what level of violence our viewers would find acceptable," says Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment at the CW. The research showed that "it's an easy pill for them to swallow." Ms. Ostroff says the violence is no worse than other prime-time action series like "24."
NBC picked up "Chase" thinking an attractive and complicated U.S. Marshal would draw viewers at 10 p.m. But after seeing the first episode, the network worried that an opening scene in which a family of three is shot at close range might be too much.
They asked Ms. Johnson to cut about 30% of the violence including shortening a tense scene in a grocery store when viewers don't know if an armed psychopath will make a little girl his next victim. "We trimmed back the body count," says Angela Bromstad, NBC's president of prime-time entertainment. "We don't want to go overboard and turn people off."
Source: Wall Street Journal. Written by Amy Chozick
Dear WSJ and TV executives,
Tell me something I didn't already freaking know.
Cool story sis time: I grew up watching Xena. She got me through my crappy middle school years. She was my hero. Xena ended in 2001, the same year Alias started, and I watched the shit out of that show. It was the first show that I watched from the very first episode to the very end. American society may not always get it right with women, but at least it allows for these kinds of female characters to thrive on TV.