STARZ COO Jeffrey Hirsch’s recent comments about the “Premium Female” audience were tone deaf, shortsighted, and reach a level of awkwardness that is rivaled only by the Scott’s Tots episode of The Office.
[The Hollywood Reporter]: “Outlander — you can say that it’s great because women like it because she’s a surgeon who goes back in time, but there’s also another side of that, which is there’s some eye candy for that audience and people like when he [Sam Heughan] has his shirt off. You have to be really thoughtful about when you’re looking at a piece of content and whether it’s really going to be female or not. And it’s not easy.” — STARZ COO Jeffrey Hirsch
I would have written about this the day that it happened, but I thought I would let some time go by. Perhaps, it wasn’t the dumpster fire I was making it out to be and time would tell me that.
Nope. Still a dumpster fire.
I’ve said my fair share of dumb things. I talk for a living, and I have totally lived that moment when I wished I could literally pull the words back into my mouth even as I’m spewing them. So, I’m not here to say I’m better than Hirsch, or call for his job because he’s a terrible guy. I’m sure he’s probably decent at heart and just made a mistake.
But this comment is a special kind of ignorant. It reeks of a pencil pusher nerd boy, who crunches numbers at his desk and has ZERO clue about his actual consumers. He has been told who they are, what they are, and how to leverage them by analysts and consultant nerd boys who also crunch numbers at their desks. So, oddly enough, I don’t think it’s all his fault. He was thrown to the dogs during his STARZ debut at the Television Critics Association’s press tour.
It was as if Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer gave Hirsch a series of buzz words like “domestic company,” “global arena,” and “65 percent of our viewership is female,” and then slapped him on the butt on the way out the door and said, “Go get ’em kid.”
Regardless of however he may or may not have prepared for this interview, Hirsch needs to be called out. While it initially feels as if he is honestly trying to talk up his audience because there’s a valiant, if not misguided, effort to compliment his consumers for their tastes, and loyalty, he just completely fumbled the ENTIRE approach. In the interview it’s clear the guy has as much of a clue as Mr. Bean trying to solve the JFK assassination.
Take his FIRST(!) comment in the interview:
“…looking at our programming slate, while we talked a lot about serving the undeserved and giving voices to talent that has never been seen on TV before, when we dug deeper, we learned it was premium women who were driving the service. We’ve started to lean into that. Everything we do now has to service that kind of programming mandate.”
He’s talking about women as if they’re a nice cut of Grade A Beef from Trader ’s. Not a great start, but I’m willing to wait for some clarification.
Enter the “premium women” comment. Boy, does Hirsch have an answer…
A little older — probably 24-54 and a little more economically viable than other segments, in terms of broadcast. They really like high scripted drama, great women in history and a lot of IP. You look at the audience for Outlander and that’s the perfect audience for us. We’ve done a lot of research around that and figured out that women are twice as likely to buy apps that are under $10; they’re more loyal; their lifetime value on a digital side is much longer. Whether we were smart enough to figure that out or we backed into it, we’ve seen it and are now leaning into it in a big way.
Yep there’s the clarification.
They are looking for this TYPE of woman. They found a market that is relatively untapped, loyal, and yearn for more content. But, the answer is still worded uncomfortably, and by the grace of the journalistic gods, Lesley Goldberg (the interviewer) gave him a chance to back away a little bit and reassess his impending path of darkness. She throws him a lifeline, saying, “[t]hat term is just….,” which is basically the equivalent of “hey man, you sure you wanna stick with that phrase? Because it sounds really dumb.”
But, instead of doing the sensible thing, Hirsch DOUBLES DOWN:
“For a long time I was calling it “female-centric,” but we’re not trying to be Lifetime. We’re not trying to put programming on that is at the exclusion of men. A lot of the couples who watch Outlander, the woman finds it and she brings her spouse to watch it. We do have a large male universe of viewers, but if it doesn’t serve that female audience, it’s not for us.”
From there, Hirsch goes into a bunch of nonsense about his programming and how they are trying to being female oriented. But, where he really shows his cards as a corporate bobo is when he talks about the recently canceled STARZ series, Counterpart, a show that Goldberg smartly refers to as having a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes for BOTH seasons. Hirsch’s answer?
“…to a certain extent, part of my view on the world today is for the most part people’s lives are tough and when they come home at night and want to escape their lives, they want to be able to get into a piece of content very easily and escape. Counterpart was really hard for people to get into — it wasn’t accessible.”
Has he seen The Leftovers? The Wire? The Sopranos? Game Of Thrones? Westworld? Deadwood? All critically acclaimed, highly rated shows that were emotionally heavy, well written, and swept people away from their real-life plights.
Oh wait, those are HBO shows — you know, the network that is SMOKING every other content creator in the cable network market, including STARZ. Why would he ever take a cue from a truly successful company?
Maybe he’s a fan of Hulu though? There’s that little show called, The Handmaid’s Tale, right? Maybe he’s seen it. Well, according to his shaky logic, I doubt it. It, too, would be heavy and doesn’t sweep people away from their unruly real lives. So, nobody would watch that. It’s not accessible. Right? RIGHT?!
Then this is the point where we go full dumpster fire…
I brought up The Office at the beginning of this article. It’s a reference to the most awkward 25 minutes I’ve ever experienced in my life: The Scott’s Tots episode. In it, Michael Scott promises to pay for a group of third graders’ college education, and years later has to reneg because he can’t afford it. It still sends shivers in my soul watching it.
I am not being hyperbolic when I say Hirsch’s next statement — the eye candy comment that kicks off this post — is quite literally neck-and-neck with the most cringe inducing (and fictional might I add) moment of Michael Scott’s life. He regrettably says:
“Outlander — you can say that it’s great because women like it because she’s a surgeon who goes back in time, but there’s also another side of that, which is there’s some eye candy for that audience and people like when he [Sam Heughan] has his shirt off. You have to be really thoughtful about when you’re looking at a piece of content and whether it’s really going to be female or not. And it’s not easy. The nice thing for us is 65 percent of our show leadership are female. You don’t need me to figure it out; we have professionals doing that.”
I give Goldberg credit; it must have taken every ounce of her concentration not to jump for joy when she heard this. She just let the guy go, and God bless him, he just kept talking. He wrote the story for her. Hirsch’s statements are a masterclass in how NOT to speak to your rabid, loyal, and mainly female audience. All of the remarks are insensitive, and ooze a just enough arrogance to appear wildly detached from what his audience actually needs.
But hereÆs the surprising thing. While these comments are all ill-advised, as a man, I can admit that I’m not overly offended about the “eye candy” comment by itself.
Woman enjoy seeing Sam Hueghan as much as I enjoy seeing Caitriona Balfe. I know this because of all the comments women share in the Outlander Cast Clan Gathering, as well as the many comments I hear directly from listeners’ mouths on the Listener Feedback episodes of my podcast.
So, let’s all be honest with each other and admit a small measure of eye candy is at work.
Also, as a man, I’m not offended at the idea that women bring their spouses into the fold of Outlander. That’s exactly what happened with me. I NEVER would have watched Outlander without some prompting from my wife, Mary, who also happens to be my podcast partner.
Instead I find Hirsch’s most egregious and offensive error to be the logic he uses to dignify his wildly rash statements. You just can’t make the “eye candy” comment and then say you have to be thoughtful about your content. “Eye candy” and thoughtful are binary statements, and you make your audience look and feel stupid by putting them together. When you do that, you devalue their taste and expectations.
Let’s set aside the fact that Heughan is a person, and referring to him as ”eye candy” is degrading at best. More importantly, relegating him to this one-dimensional commentary minimizes his actual acting ability and how he fully embodies James Fraser. Fans far and wide recognize that Heughan has evolved into an accomplished artist who brings depth to Jamie Fraser as a character. To Hirsch, however, his best talent is the size of his pecs or if he has an 8- or 12-pack. While there may be a level of truth to admitting ”eye candy” is part of Outlander’s appeal, it’s base, it’s coarse and worst of all, it’s condescending to suggest this is all Heughan is bringing to the table.
”Eye candy” is The Real Housewives of Fill in the Blank.“Eye candy” is The Bachelor. “Eye candy” is Keeping up with the Kardashians ::gag:: It’s all facade, and no real texture. And guess what, that’s what they’re meant to be. There’s a place for those shows and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Outlander is many things, but Keeping up with the Kardashians, it is not.
Playing a close second for me in the offensive category is how Hirsch underestimates why people STAY for the content. Any good writer knows that a hook is important, but you have to give an audience a reason to remain and that reason is always, always, ALWAYS character.
Say what you will about Outlander, but its characters are effervescent and alive from the jump. People stay because of them, the relationships they share on screen and the history they inhabit. Not just because they’re pretty.
Between the comments about Counterpart, and a clear lack of understanding about character, Hirsch obviously has no idea what good television looks like. How is this guy hand picked to succeed Chris Albrecht, a guy who literally changed the landscape of premiere cable television?
But, the stupidity doesn’t end there…
There’s also this Hirsch gem:
”The Outlander [Netflix] deal was a Sony deal that was done before I got to STARZ; I would not have allowed that to happen. It’s the ying and the yang from a business perspective of taking the short-term money and building great, long-term enterprise value.“
He WOULD NOT have allowed Outlander to go on Netflix, the move that has injected real life into a show suffering from declining ratings, the recipient of few major critical awards, and whose recently completed fourth season was largely uneven. Putting Outlander on Netflix has brought hundreds of thousands of people into its world who would otherwise never have seen it to begin with, and brought droves of new fans into the mix for the upcoming fifth season.
So, in the end, I’m not telling you to not be upset over the eye candy comments, how pompous Hirsch sounds, or how he thinks women drag their husbands to watch Outlander. Be upset. Just know he’s a corporate nerd who has no idea what the hell he’s doing.
I am absolutely saying, however, you should be outraged over how much Hirsch underestimates your knowledge of good television, and how he combines Eye Candy and the idea of being thoughtful. That is an insult to all of us.
Oh, and, Jeff, if you’re reading this, here’s a piece of advice from a rabid Outlander fan who just happens to be a male.
Whatever god you believe in gave you two ears and one mouth.
Learn more about your actual audience and not what a TPS report tells you. Understand what makes your shows worth watching and how they affect people. Instead of leaning into the ”premium female” and leveraging their loyalty how about you just lean into making good content because it’s good.
You won’t have to worry if it’s female centric because people will flock to your content in droves if it’s good. Just ask the professionals at HBO, Hulu, or Netflix.
I can’t believe this Hooplehead is in charge of Outlander‘s fate.
What do you think of STARZ COO Jeffrey Hirsch’s comments?