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Two big steps back

On Wednesday night, women get to see how much respect TV still doesn't give them: CBS has the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show and ABC The Bachelor finale.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 19, 2002

If I were a woman, I'd be peeved right now.

Yes, TV regularly objectifies the female form. And if it were taboo for TV to have women debase themselves for male approval, The Howard Stern Show would have hit the showers long ago.

Still, Wednesday's double bill in which CBS airs the hourlong Victoria's Secret Fashion Show at the same time ABC begins its two-hour finale for the second edition of The Bachelor, feels like a twin-barrelled dose of disrespect for women everywhere.

"It's a giant step backward in terms of the evolution of women on television and the evolution of women in general," said Elizabeth Coffman, chair of the communications department at the University of Tampa, who specializes in studying women in media. "The only way to take (these shows) is as camp. Because if they're serious, we should be in the streets protesting."

In a world where game show contestants have eaten bull testicles and one medical drama has featured a character's arm graphically sliced off by a helicopter rotor, bellyaching about TV's gender double standards seems almost quaint.

But women have almost unprecedented power in TV these days. The presidents of entertainment at ABC, CBS and Fox are female. So why have two networks agreed to air a lingerie fashion show and a reality TV game in which 25 women throw themselves at a single man? On the same night?

The short answer is always the same: money.

Last year's Victoria's Secret Fashion Show drew 12.4-million viewers and a deluge of criticism. Media experts said the show was a thinly veiled infomercial, feminists said the show was exploitive and moralistic watchdogs said the proceedings were a step away from soft-core pornography.

The Federal Communications Commission briefly contemplated action, but the agency can discipline only the stations that aired the show, not the network.

This year, CBS greedily snapped up the show from ABC, first scheduling it at 10 p.m. (until the network realized the second hour of the Bachelor finale would collide with its show), then moving it to 8 p.m. (until it realized that scantily clad models would be jiggling through the "family hour"), and settling at 9 p.m.

Similarly, The Bachelor has helped save ABC's prime-time bacon while handing a black eye to NBC powerhouse The West Wing. Last week's episode, featuring the 23 women that bachelor Aaron Buerge has rejected, drew 16.8-million viewers and the network's highest ratings among those ages 18 to 34 in three years.

The Bachelor depicts a crowd of beautiful, intelligent women jumping through hoops to earn the approval of a single man, but it averages 9.3-million women and 4.4-million men each night (not including last week's show), according to Nielsen Media Research.

Shari Anne Brill, a New York-based vice president at the advertising firm Carat USA, suspects that the show's young female viewers have forgotten the sacrifices women made in the '70s to avoid being seen as chiefly interested in bagging a husband.

"The draw to be on that show certainly isn't to find a husband; it's to be famous," Brill said. "Baby boomer women . . . who are more entrenched in their careers, they see this as a giant setback."

Women are likely drawn to the show's faux romance and the competition, she said. "We should look at the show in terms of what it says about the woman-to-woman relationship," Brill said. "That's at least part of the interest: the chase and the competition."

The Bachelor maintains a thin hypocrisy: that bachelors such as Aaron Buerge aren't in it for the free fantasy dates; they're in it to find the perfect mate. But let's not forget, first bachelor Alex Michel still lives in a different time zone from the woman he picked in May.

Wednesday, as men sit down to watch Heidi Klum saunter down a runway wearing gossamer-thin lingerie and angel's wings (to promote Victoria's Secret's Angel line), women will sit down to see whether Buerge chooses 27-year-old New Jersey school psychologist Helene or 22-year-old Alabama college student Brooke.

And those of us who preached that things would be different if women became network executives will wonder if we were wasting our breath.

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