The first thing Samantha Brown wants you to know is that women do travel—not that mainstream travel media is paying attention, she says. Once the Travel Channel’s lone female marquee host, the spirited 47-year-old recently parted ways with the network, and is now in the midst of filming her forthcoming PBS show, Samantha Brown’s Places to Love, set to debut in January. It’s a loss for Travel Channel viewers, who came to know Brown as the face of the channel early on, along with wandering food fiends Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern.
Brown is crossing her fingers the industry finally steps into the 21st century; after all, women account for a staggering two-thirds of all travelers, according to the George Washington University School of Business, and 54 percent of the most affluent travelers are women. You’d never know that from the travel media space, in which women-helmed television shows are depressingly hard to find.
It wasn’t always that way: Rachael Ray and Giada De Laurentiis each hosted popular travel shows on Food Network in the past—namely $40 a Day, Rachael’s Vacation, Giada’s Weekend Getaways, and Giada in Paradise—but all are either defunct or on a seemingly indefinite hiatus. Spain… on the Road Again, the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle on PBS, lasted a single season in late 2008. Another one-season wonder, Bridget’s Sexiest Beaches on Travel Channel, featured scantily clad former Playboy model Bridget Marquardt in 2009. And Girl Eat World, starring the not-scantily-clad MasterChef South Africa 2013 winner Kamini Pather on a food crawl around the world, came and went on the Food Network.
Viceland stands out with a handful of female-led travel-ish shows: Meg Gill currently hosts the suds-focused program Beerland; Hailey Gates explores fashion around the world in States of Undress, and Ellen Page’s Gaycation is currently in its second season. But beyond these stars, women seem to be relegated to sidekick roles across—deep breath here—National Geographic, History Channel, Travel Channel, Food Network, Discovery, CNN, truTV, SundanceTV, Spike, Animal Planet, A&E, Science, Syfy, IFC, BBC America, and MTV. Same holds true for streaming services Netflix and Hulu. Even round-ups touting the best travel shows out there look like a wall of men. We trawled listings for each of these channels, but if there’s a woman leading a travel show, she’s extraordinarily well hidden.
“The visual of a woman confidently traveling is a powerful one.”
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“There is a whole consumer base with a massive budget that [they’re] not reaching because [they] do not have a woman” representing female travelers on TV, Brown said. A rigid truth, she added, is that women have travel concerns that most men do not—safety comes up often—and the visual of a woman confidently traveling is a powerful one. “People have seen me travel, they see me in the world. All of a sudden it makes it possible.”
In fairness, this bias isn’t limited to the travel sphere. It speaks to a larger issue in film and TV—according to a study by the Women’s Media Center, an organization founded by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan, and Gloria Steinem, the 2017 Oscars saw fewer women nominated in non-acting categories than last year’s. Only 20 percent of the nominees in non-acting categories were women, down two percent from last year.
When reached for comment, Travel Channel’s SVP of programming Courtney White pushed back at the suggestion the network shies away from female voices. She ticked off several female-led shows in development: Mysterious Islands with travel journalist Kellee Edwards; Alaska 1,000 Ways with bush pilot Ariel Tweto; and Vintage America with writer Claire Burns. In addition, a new series, Caribbean Pirate Treasure, began airing August 20; it’s co-hosted by married couple Ashlan and Philippe Cousteau (the latter is the grandson of famed explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau).
“Charismatic stars, male or female, who capture the audience’s imaginations and deliver on epic adventures, mind-blowing explorations, amazing foods, and bring a fun, unique, high-energy perspective to the table will resonate with our audience,” White says. “None of those things is gender specific.”
Brown thinks the dearth of women as prominent TV travelers is a bit more conspicuous than that. “If I’m not getting the ratings they want, I’m pulled right away,” Brown says of her experience at Travel Channel. “But a male host is allowed to spend more time getting more ratings.” She claims it boils down to the false perception that men are more bankable. “I feel there’s more confidence in a male traveler than a female traveler.”
Darley Newman, host of Travels With Darley on PBS, which debuts its fourth season this fall, experienced this bias firsthand when preparing to shop around an earlier Travels With Darley show, which first aired as a short series on AOL in 2014 and helped Newman land her current show.
“I went to a talent agent—a woman—and she’s like, ‘If you’re not in a bikini on a beach, no one wants to watch you,’” Newman says. That was two years ago. “It was the most depressing thing.”
Paula Froelich, host of the web show A Broad Abroad, expressed similar frustrations in dealing with TV power brokers. Her program previously aired online on the now-shuttered Yahoo! Travel platform, which she said pulled in between 750,000 and 1 million viewers on average per week, with a 70 percent watch-through rate. Froelich assumed that with numbers like that, a show on television would be a lock.
“If you’re not in a bikini on a beach, no one wants to watch you.”
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“Yahoo ended, and I was like, ‘Oh, let’s try to sell this as a show.’ And literally, it’s impossible,” Froelich says. She says she shopped A Broad Abroad around to several networks, major and otherwise. No one bit. “On television, there are no female travel hosts. Despite the fact that women are the ones traveling, women are the ones with money, and women are clearly the ones who want to watch.”
Brown is hoping for success with her new PBS show, which aims to spotlight the unseen and unsung people who define the soul of a particular destination. Women are often the focus; the first episode takes viewers to Houston, where a micro-economic initiative gives refugee women agency to capitalize on skills honed in their home countries. “I’m always looking for the female angle, which I always feel gets lost in the world of men,” Brown says.
Froelich echoed that sentiment, although she’s eager for the day when gender—as either a selling point or weakness—is off the table entirely. For now, she continues to air new episodes of A Broad Abroad online and shop it around to networks.
“I’ve survived skiing in Afghanistan, a bus tour of Iraq, and an expedition of the Arctic,” she said. “I can deal with this.”
Travel TV Embarrassingly Lacks Female Hosts – Condé Nast Traveler