When it comes to online video, men aren't the boss anymore.
Rapidly growing in numbers and influence, female viewers are reshaping original programming at major platforms such as AOL, Hulu, and YouTube.
WIGS, YouTube's popular women's channel, marks its first anniversary with the premiere Friday of the second season of Lauren, a powerful drama about rape in the military starring Troian Bellisario, Jennifer Beals, Bradley Whitford, and Raymond Cruz.
Founded by filmmakers Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes) and Rodrigo Garcia (Alfred Nobbs), WIGS has consistently delivered some of the most engaging programs online.
Avnet, whose TV work includes the innovative cop show Boomtown, began talking to Garcia about online video five years ago.
"I felt intuitively that a lot of the stuff that was on the Web was [made] for young males," Avnet said in a joint phone interview with Rodrigo. "But we quickly found out that the most rapidly growing demographic online was women and that they are still underserved."
Avnet and Garcia were able to attract top actors willing to work for little or no money, including Julia Stiles (Blue), Sarah Jones and Jason Isaacs (Kendra), Jennifer Garner and Alfred Molina (Serena), America Ferrera and Eric Balfour (Christine), and Rosanna Arquette (Rochelle).
Over the last 12 months, WIGS has posted 100 episodes of scripted drama (each episode averages about eight minutes).
WIGS and other online channels such as AOL On Parenting have put to bed the received wisdom that the online audience is dominated by pimply-faced teenage boys lurking in the basement.
Even one of YouTube's most male-centric video providers, Machinima, has been affected. The company, which produces gaming videos and sci-fi shows, reports female viewership has mushroomed, going from 8.8 percent in March 2010 to 24.4 percent this March.
Competing platform Hulu on Monday introduced programming on its Online Network channel that is likely to draw a large female audience: New seasons of famed soap operas One Life to Live and All My Children, which were both canceled last year by ABC. They will be posted four days a week for 42 weeks.
"When we first started I was really worried that women who are at home during the day won't be online users," said Rich Frank, cofounder of Prospect Park, which produces the soaps. "But it turns out [that demographic] is indexing way above the average person when it comes to online usage. They are very socially interactive. They are on the Internet all the time."
All My Children executive producer Ginger Smith was equally surprised. "At ABC, the largest number of fans were women in their 50s," she said. "But they're exactly the same people who were online with petitions when the shows were canceled."
Jennifer Pepperman, executive producer of One Life to Live, admits the soaps also are trying to appeal to younger viewers.
"The storylines are faster, with less repetition," she said, "and some of the storylines we'll be telling will be hipper, edgier."
Issue-driven dramas predominate on WIGS, including Susanna, premiering later this spring. Anna Paquin plays a new mother suffering from postpartum depression who seeks help from her younger sister (Maggie Grace).
"The small screen allows for more intimate stories," said Garcia . "But within that arena, we still can produce . . . sophisticated psychological portraits."
Lauren fits the bill perfectly. Bellisario (Pretty Little Liars) stars as a third-generation soldier who is brutally raped by three male soldiers. Her superior, Maj. Jo Stone (Beals) tries to help Lauren avoid career suicide by making her recant the accusation.
To help her stay in the Army, she must make her renounce her values.
The women's relationship deepens in the second season, Beals and Bellisario said in a telephone news conference. "The connection to Lauren has kind of opened [Stone's] own past," said Beals, who reveals that Stone herself was subjected to dehumanizing tribulations when she was younger.
Lauren takes a deeply critical look at how the military hierarchy deals with sexual assault, but doesn't defame the Army, said Bellisario. "It's not about demonizing the Army . . . it's about how can we challenge people to stand up for themselves, to take responsibility," she said.
Lauren mines dark veins in the human experience, said Garcia, who said he wants WIGS to be known for programming that pushes the envelope.
"Just because it's online doesn't mean it needs to be disposable and cuddly and fluffy," he said.