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The 2009 Fall Season: CBS

By Christopher Gildemeister


For decades, the CBS television network has been engaged in a bizarre form of cultural bulimia. In a repetitive pattern, the network airs shows that are often (though not always) friendly to families, and which tend to attract an older audience. Then, apparently out of some shocked self-revulsion at providing programming that anyone other than young urban singles may want to watch, the network removes all such “older-skewing” programs from its schedule, replacing them with shows appealing to the uber-desirable 18-34 demographic. But after a certain period, the network again finds itself popular with viewers who are older and/or do not live in Manhattan or Beverly Hills – at which point, the binge/purge cycle begins again.


This has been a recurrent pattern in the Eye Network’s TV history. As far back as 1971, CBS initiated what is now known as the “rural purge,” in one fell swoop cancelling The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, Mayberry, R.F.D. (successor to The Andy Griffith Show) and Hee Haw, as well as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Red Skelton Show, The Lawrence Welk Show, The Jim Nabors Hour, Family Affair and Lassie. All of these were family-friendly programs, and many of them were still doing well in the ratings; but the network determined to rid itself of the label of “the old people’s network” and substituted series with an appeal to a younger, more urban demographic.


Admittedly, many of these replacements were of extremely high quality and became classics of the television medium: MASH, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and All in the Family and its many spin-offs/sequels like Maude and The Jeffersons. But while such shows were excellent, still the pattern was established – and it has recurred throughout the history of CBS. No matter how successful a series is for CBS – Murder She Wrote, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Touched by an Angel – invariably, if it has a family-friendly theme or an appeal to anyone other than Family Guy fans, sooner or later CBS will replace it with something more graphic. (In 2005, CBS President Les Moonves cancelled the successful Joan of Arcadia and replaced it with Ghost Whisperer, stating, “Ghosts skew younger than God.”)


It is as if CBS stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that Middle America watches television and has purchasing power. Yet rather than embracing the huge audience of those over 35 – or the even larger one of viewers of any age in search of programming free of crass sex jokes and foul language – the network continues to produce and promote programs containing offensive material. Perhaps the answer is that those in charge of the network simply cannot bear to be perceived as anything other than young, trendy hipsters.


This trend was confirmed earlier this week by an article in the Hollywood Reporter, which measured the average age of TV show viewers. The top three new shows this season with appeal to older viewers – The Good Wife, NCIS: Los Angeles, and Three Rivers – all air on CBS. While such shows are popular, so too were The Beverly Hillbillies and others in their day; and their popularity did not save them from being cancelled for the unparalleled crime of daring to appeal to the “wrong” kind of audience. 


All of which brings us to a survey of the CBS prime-time lineup this fall. Only three few new shows have debuted, so much of the network’s schedule is made up of returning programs; but, across the schedule, CBS continues to show the same struggle between family-friendly (or at least relatively inoffensive) programs, and those which often do nothing but offend.


The latter trend is exemplified by the network’s various situation comedies. In an evening largely comprising such fare, Mondays begin with How I Met Your Mother (8:00 p.m. ET). Told largely in flashback, this program uses the device of a father narrating tales of his earlier life to his kids, eventually leading up to the title tale. But parents shouldn’t be fooled by the concept; much of the humor on this show is sex-based, with typical storylines including strip clubs, pornography and prostitution. In a previous season the show even did an episode about one character’s “centennial” – a sexual experience with his 100th different woman. Naturally, CBS executives have scheduled this seamy show at the very beginning of the Family Hour.


The second half of Monday’s Family Hour sees no respite, occupied by the new comedy Accidentally on Purpose (8:30 p.m. ET). A jilted middle-aged woman irresponsibly has sex with a much younger man and becomes pregnant – what a delightful premise for children to see in the first hour of prime time! Most of the show’s “humor” derives from the woman’s difficulty interacting with the young father’s friends and lifestyle. Given the show’s premise, naturally the jokes are all about sex, sex, and more sex.


But raunchy though Accidentally on Purpose may be, it cannot match CBS’ champion of sleaze, Two and a Half Men (9:00 p.m. ET). In what the show’s creator, Chuck Lorre, has described as “an ongoing struggle to push the envelope,” the program weekly delves into a cesspool of raunchy sex talk. In the past, Charlie Sheen’s character (oh-so-creatively named “Charlie”) has been a serial philanderer willing to bed anything of the female gender, who constantly mocks his wimpy, pathetic brother Alan while boasting about his sexual exploits. This season, there have been some minor changes: Charlie is engaged and living with his fiancée, Chelsea, this season and so far has somehow managed to remain faithful to her.  However, this does not mean that Two and a Half Men is beginning to substitute actual humor for smut; instead, the show is ramping up Alan’s sexual behavior. Naturally, Charlie still has lots and lots of sexual dialogue, and he and Chelsea are shown before and after sex frequently as well. Adding to the offensive nature of the program is the fact that also living in the home with these men is Alan’s young son Jake, who idolizes Charlie for his licentious lifestyle. The fact that making this program requires real-life child actor Angus T. Jones to be exposed to such content apparently matters not at all to producer Lorre. But then, what else could be expected from someone who is responsible for a show with episode titles like "Laxative Tester, Horse Inseminator?"


Monday evening’s last comedy is The Big Bang Theory (9:30 p.m. ET). Though also produced by Chuck Lorre, until this season the program contained less sexual content than its predecessor, with the show’s premise focused on the interaction of two nerds, Sheldon and Leonard, with their beautiful neighbor Penny. In the past, much of the show’s humor arose from the geeky roommates’ obsessions with physics and science-fiction, and their ineptness around women. But this season, Leonard and Penny had sex; and much of the show since then has revolved around this new, raunchier element.


The network’s two other sitcoms, featured on Wednesday nights, also emphasize sex. The New Adventures of Old Christine (8:00 p.m. ET), heavily features dialogue about sexual matters, from a woman’s perspective; while Gary Unmarried (8:30 p.m. ET) also features much sexual innuendo about Gary’s dating life. But while sex is a major part of these shows, it is not so nearly to the degree of CBS’ Monday-night programming, nor is it generally as crass as that on shows like Two and a Half Men (but then, what could be?)


Another major emphasis of CBS is violent and sexually-themed crime drama. All of the entries in CBS’ most successful franchise, CSI (Thursdays, 9:00 p.m. ET) CSI Miami (Mondays, 10:00 p.m. ET)   and CSI: NY (Wednesdays, 10:00 p.m. ET) deal with crime scene investigations, focusing almost entirely on violent crimes and their gory aftermaths, as well as a heavy emphasis on sex crimes, with content often explicit and perverse. Strip clubs, prostitution, and bizarre sexual practices are commonplace fodder for these shows; indeed, lead investigator Gil Grissom on CSI frequently consults “Lady Heather,” a professional dominatrix (who also happens to be a registered psychologist and therapist! Only on TV.)  


Also falling into this sex-and-gore category are the network’s crime dramas Criminal Minds (Wednesdays, 9:00 p.m. ET) and Cold Case (Sundays, 10:00 p.m. ET). And although popular particularly with heartland audiences for its positive view of the military, emphasis on battling terrorism, and old-fashioned heroism of its Marine lead character, NCIS (Tuesdays, 8:00 p.m. ET) and its new spin-off this season, NCIS: Los Angeles (Tuesdays, 9:00 p.m. ET), also have an increasing and unsettling fascination with sexual crimes and gore.


Not long ago, CBS’ crime dramas could have roughly been divided into “forensic” shows (ones which had a stronger basis in the investigation of physical evidence, and as a result emphasized corpses and gore) and “mystery” shows (which dealt more with various – usually unusual – methods of solving crimes, such as psychic powers or arcane mathematical formulae). Typically, the “forensic” shows had a much greater emphasis on corpses, gore and deviant sexual practices, while the “mystery” shows were more character-driven. Regrettably, in recent seasons even the “mystery” programs are incorporating ever-more graphic scenes of bloodshed and evisceration, as well as a greater emphasis on sex. Thus, while once shows like The Mentalist (Thursdays, 10:00 p.m. ET), Medium (Fridays, 9:00 p.m. ET) and Numb3rs (Fridays, 10:00 p.m. ET) tended to be relatively safe for families, they too have now succumbed to the lures of depicting graphic violence and discussing kinky sex crimes. Alone among such shows, Ghost Whisperer (Fridays, 8:00 p.m. ET) retains its older focus on the supernatural, to the exclusion of explicit sex and violence.


Two new (non-crime related) dramas also grace the CBS schedule this fall. The Good Wife (Tuesdays, 10:00 p.m. ET) involves a politician disgraced in a sex scandal; but as per the show’s title, it much more tells the story of the politician’s “good wife,” and her struggles to maintain her dignity, rebuild her career, and keep her family together. Given the show’s premise, a certain amount of involvement with sex is inevitable; particular storylines have focused on the effect of the politician’s affairs on his wife and children. While the specific references to sex may make the show inappropriate for children, the very fact that one program in the network’s lineup emphasizes the personal devastation which is caused by reckless sexual behavior is commendable.


Even more commendable is CBS’ other new dramatic series, Three Rivers (Sundays, 9:00 p.m. ET). Devoted to the work of transplant surgeons, this series is unique for prime-time television in actually being about the surgeons’ work, not about their bed-hopping sex lives or an endless series of bizarre and totally unlikely diseases. With no sex or foul language and an absolute minimum of blood, Three Rivers is an uplifting program which has already earned plaudits from viewers – including an e-mail to the PTC from a nurse of over 40 years’ experience, who called Three Rivers “a true to life show that depicts as close as possible the real thing." So excellent was this program’s premiere episode that the PTC named it the Best TV Show of the Week.  


CBS rounds out its week with a pair of reality shows: the now-venerable originator of the genre, Survivor (Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. ET), and The Amazing Race (Sundays, 8:00 p.m. ET). Survivor has rarely had much content of concern to parents, though language can sometimes be harsh and, in the past, blurred nudity has sometimes been shown. Amazing Race is even cleaner; while language is also an occasional issue here, more of the show’s emphasis is on the adventures encountered while travelling the globe, and on teamwork -- particularly with this season’s emphasis on contestant, Zev, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, yet is able to contribute to beating the challenges presented by the game.


While in recent years CBS has been in one of its youth-oriented phases, with its emphasis on bizarre sexual hang-ups and extremely graphic violence, yet these few shows hold out hope that once again the pendulum may swing back toward more family-friendly programming. It has happened before; why not again?


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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