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Repurposing: To Whose Purpose?

By Christopher Gildemeister


The CBS broadcast network is justly infamous for its swath of gory crime dramas like C.S.I., C.S.I. New York, C.S.I. Miami and others. These shows are awash in blood and entrails, and are often charged with depraved sexual tensions as well. Rare is the episode of C.S.I. in which the murder under investigation does not involve or in some way touch upon rape, prostitution, child molestation, sadism or some other unsavory form of sex.


However, production on these programs will soon come to a standstill, due to the ongoing TV writer’s strike. One might think that, given that all his bloody crime dramas on CBS are going on hiatus, CBS President Les Moonves might consider some other kind of programming. But one would be wrong. Instead, Moonves has announced that CBS will be importing programs from sibling premium cable network Showtime to fill the gap. Among those programs will be Weeds, about a drug-dealing housewife, and Dexter, a show about a heroic serial killer.


You read that right: on Showtime’s Dexter, the hero of the program is a serial killer. The viewer is apparently supposed to cheer for Dexter, because he only kills murderers or other criminals such as pedophiles. On the program, Dexter’s father – a police officer – teaches Dexter how to commit his murders: how to drain his victim’s corpses of blood, how to dispose of bodies, and generally how to evade the law.  And after each murder, Dexter charmingly keeps a copy of each victim’s DNA, in the form of blood.


If it is shown on CBS, Dexter would be only the most recent example of such “repurposing.” Used to describe the recycling or rerunning of programming from one format to another, “repurposing” has long been a key component in the sometimes cozy, sometimes fractious relationship between broadcast and cable television.


For many years, and even today, “repurposing” referred primarily to the practice of broadcast networks sending their most recently-aired episodes into immediate reruns on cable. Generally this was done between networks owned by the same corporate entity: FX reran Fox’s Family Guy, ABC Family reran ABC’s Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and USA (owned by NBC-Universal) reran NBC’s Law & Order. This practice helped fill in programming on the often-barren cable network landscape, while giving favorite network series more exposure.


But today, the tide is beginning to flow in the opposite direction. Cable networks today are increasingly home to more graphically violent and sexually explicit original programming – programming often laden as well with truly astonishing amounts of profanity. Naturally, television critics are hopelessly infatuated with these rancid shows, lauding their “dark,” “edgy,” and “mature” themes (as though there is something “mature” about subjects and language which delight adolescents). In the incestuously insular world of television production, however, praise from “the critics” is the ultimate compliment.  And if a program, however tawdry to the vast majority of television viewers, attracts even a couple of hundred thousand viewers, it is considered an overwhelming success. In these circumstances, the corporate ownership looks for ways to turn small hits drawing tiny numbers on cable into bigger hits drawing millions of viewers on broadcast TV.


This process has already been performed on some of the most extreme programming cable has produced. HBO’s Sex and the City, with its unbelievably raunchy dialogue, was first “repurposed” to TNT -- at 9:00 p.m. ET. And since that time, it has entered broadcast syndication, airing in many different markets.


The same course has been pursued by FX’s incredibly violent police drama The Shield. Originally airing at 10:00 p.m. ET on cable, it too has now entered broadcast syndication, being run at a variety of times by various local stations.  A&E (the former “Arts and Entertainment” network) made headlines earlier this year when it gained the rights to “repurpose” HBO’s brutal and repellent Mafia drama The Sopranos. A&E showed this program too at 9:00 p.m. And just months ago, NewsCorp “repurposed” several episodes of its gory FX drama Damages onto the broadcast MyNetworkTV at 8:00 p.m. ET.


In each case mentioned above, the networks involved promised – cross their hearts and hope to die! – that every episode would be carefully scrutinized and scrubbed clean of any violence, sex, language or dialogue which might even possibly contravene broadcast decency standards…with predictable results. In side-by-side comparisons of the cable originals with the broadcast reruns, the PTC found practically no difference in content.  


There are three negative consequences to the “repurposing” of explicit cable content to broadcast TV. First and most obviously, it creates the possibility that any TV viewer anywhere – adult, teen or child – might be exposed to disturbing and explicit content. So long as Dexter, The Sopranos and other such programs remained confined to premium cable, this was not a concern; adults who enjoyed such programming could order it, while viewers who would find it disgusting or disturbing were not forced to pay for it, or ever see it. But under “repurposing” viewers will increasingly find their homes being flooded with ever more extreme programming.


Secondly, such “repurposing” makes a joke of America’s broadcast indecency laws. Broadcasters do not own the airwaves – the American people do. Broadcasters are granted licenses and allowed to use the airwaves, so long as they operate “in the public interest,” as required by law. But in their arrogance, the multi-billionaire network owners pooh-pooh the law, claiming that if viewers are offended by the use to which the public property is being put, they should just “change the channel.”  By “repurposing” programming which is created for premium cable -- programming which is intended to operate on a restricted-to-adults pay network, and which is deliberately written to incorporate ideas inappropriate for children and which many adult viewers would find unsavory or offensive – the broadcast network bosses are defiantly ignoring the laws which the majority of Americans find desirable.


Thirdly, and perhaps most disturbingly, by putting extreme and graphic drama on broadcast TV, programmers are deliberately “raising the stakes.” One has only to look at the programming filling movie theaters and TV screens today to see that this “upping the ante” is already happening.  Allowing adult premium cable programs like Dexter to be “repurposed” onto broadcast TV will serve only the purposes of television’s greedy and arrogant bosses…not those of the American people.


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff: Aubree Bowling, Caroline Schulenburg, Josh Shirlen, and Adam Shuler, under the direction of Dr. John Rattliff.

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