Will this girls' night in make the boys switch off?

In America, 'Ally McBeal' has proved to be a hit with all audiences, writes Janine Gibson. But British men may not want to watch another 'chick flick' show
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The Independent Online
There are two notable things about Ally McBeal that raise it from the crowd of American shows imported by Channel 4. First, it isn't a half- hour sitcom or an ER-type hour-long drama; it's more a hybrid of the two. So hard is the show to categorise that something of a debate arose around the Golden Globe Awards as to in which category it should be entered. Interestingly, the question was never whether it would win; eventually it took the prize for best comedy.

The second notable thing about the series is its tag-line in the US. Ally McBeal, we are warned, "Dares to Take you into the Mind of a Woman". But it is less the minds of women than their purses that Ms McBeal is designed for. Her US success is evidence that, as in the film and music industries, television is targeting the hottest demographic of the decade: young women.

The heroine, McBeal, is a lawyer who, after being sexually harassed, changes her job to join a firm in which her ex is employed. There is a five-person-strong ensemble cast, but stories are told from her perspective, with special effects inserts to show her thoughts as the plot moves along (judging by the first two episodes, when you Dare to go inside the Mind of a Woman you find breast size paranoia and a minor obsession with meaningless sex).

Its creator, David E Kelley - whose credits include LA Law and Chicago Hope - was asked by the Fox network to develop an hour-long series to run after Melrose Place and retain some of that audience. His brief was to write a series that would appeal to young women of 18-34 and provide an alternative to the predominantly male audience of Monday Night Football on the rival network ABC. In fact, when series one was broadcast, Ally McBeal's appeal spilled over its core demographic, appealing to men as well and gaining momentum throughout its run.

As to whether Ally McBeal is a phenomenon or just a good new series, consider the surrounding television landscape. In an RTS speech earlier this year, Geoffrey Perkins, BBC head of comedy, said that six sitcoms currently airing in the US are about women in either publishing or PR. Certainly of those that have transferred to the UK, Suddenly Susan (Brooke Shields as a journalist), Caroline in the City (Lea Thompson as a syndicated cartoonist) and Cybill (Cybill Shepherd as an actress) bear out the "media babe" obsession. All three women are around or above the age of 30; all are single; all face romantic tribulations in a comic way; and all are successful career women. Well, Cybill is supposed to be a struggling actress, but she lives in a very nice house in LA, and doesn't appear to be short of cash.

Meanwhile, over here our very own media babe Bridget Jones - who made the career leap from publishing to daytime television producer - is soon to make her big-screen debut. The publishing phenomenon that sprang up around Bridget - the chronicles of single thirtysomethings, courtesy of Marion Keyes, Arabella Weir et al, presumably will also soon graduate to the screen.

Hollywood, too, has recognised the power of the female pound and reacted, predictably, in the romantic comedy genre; there is even a name for the ilk - the chick flick. The recent girl films My Best Friend's Wedding, How to Make an American Quilt and Waiting to Exhale were all solid performers at the box office and this year's crop, Sliding Doors, Martha ... Meet Frank, Daniel and Lawrence and The Object of my Affection show every sign of doing the same. Lest we get carried away, though, these are a specific kind of chick flick; there is yet to be a female serial killer writ large.

In the music industry, too, we must blame the strength of the female CD-buyer for the "girl with a guitar" phenomenon and the likes of Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crowe, Meredith Brooks etc. In the US there is even an all-female rock festival planned by the organisers of Lollapalooza.

Television producers in the UK tend to follow their US counterparts much as the buying public looks to the US trends. While the big US networks are reputedly frantic to find their own Ally McBeal, Fox, broadcaster of the series, has commissioned what it hopes will be a second. Called Felicity, it is described in true LA pitch-speak as "Ally McBeal in college".

Yet UK television hasn't quite caught up yet. The shows that pull that same demographic in the UK are in short supply. Ian Lewis, broadcast director at Zenith Media, says it is particularly important to attract a young female audience because they have a large discretionary disposable income, and the lads are so well catered for. "Over the last four or five years television has been driven by a combination of Channel 4 and Sky, where there's an awful lot of programming targeted at 16-to-34-year-old men. It's Lads' TV; there's even a whole channel of Granada Men and Motors."

Lewis adds that, traditionally, programming aimed at women hasn't tried to break down its appeal in terms of lifestyle, or indeed anything else. He has high hopes for Ally McBeal when it launches on Channel 4 next week: "The longer the series ran in the States, the more male the audience became; although it was a hit with the audience it was written for straightaway, the quality of the programme pulled in different viewers ... In terms of what classifies a hit for Channel 4, around 3 to 3.5 million viewers, I think it'll be a hit."

Comparable TV series are rare in the UK, says Lewis, because broadcasters here don't commission shows for a niche audience. "We will start to see more and more programmes commissioned for a particular audience, though, as part of the continued fragmentation of channels and audiences in the UK."