Brought to you by the Parents Television
The Fall 2009 Season: NBC
By Christopher Gildemeister
In the earliest days of radio, NBC became the
first American broadcasting network; and for decades, NBC and CBS were
essentially the only contenders for dominance in the field of broadcasting. Past
competitors like Mutual and DuMont are long gone and forgotten; and it was only
in the 1970s that long-time third-place network ABC (itself a spin-off of NBC)
truly took a place at the media table.
But the years since have not been kind to NBC.
From its mid-‘80s high point in terms of audience numbers and quality in
programming, when such NBC programs as The Cosby Show and Family Ties
were top hits, over the course of the last two decades NBC has fallen into
fourth place, behind relative newcomer Fox. Today, only the much-smaller CW
network, with its tight focus on young female viewers (many of whom watch the
network’s programs online and hence aren’t counted by Nielsen ratings) lags
The reasons for this decline are many and
complex, ranging from the network’s purchase and subsequent mismanagement by
General Electric in the late 1980s, to NBC’s limited cable network affiliation.
Unlike media giants Viacom (owner of CBS), ABC-Disney, and the Fox/News Corp
conglomerates, NBC-Universal’s cable and other holdings – and the revenues
derived therefrom -- are relatively limited. This drastic decline in ratings and
revenue explains some of the programming moves NBC has made in recent years, and
also had an effect on the content of the programs on NBC’s fall schedule.
Mondays on NBC open with
Heroes (8:00 p.m. ET), a show about
super-powered individuals which was a smash hit its first season, but which like
its parent network has fallen on hard times of late. Though generally upbeat,
Heroes has occasionally featured some graphic gore, from the first season
scene of fast-healing cheerleader Claire plunging her hand into the whirling
blades of a garbage disposal, to the same character undergoing brain surgery
while wide awake, to this season’s scene of Claire leaping out a window and
hitting the ground, with blood pouring out of her nose and her ribs sticking out
of her side (Claire casually pushes her ribs back in place). Though sex is
rarely a problem on Heroes, it too has become more prominent in recent
The new show
(9:00 p.m. ET) follows Heroes. Telling the story of paramedics, this
program’s characters have lives filled with more than a little trauma
themselves: one character is an Iraq war vet, two others are philanderers and
all share the memory of a comrade who was killed in a helicopter crash. The
program contains a fair number of bloody scenes given its premise, with recent
examples including a woman with a gouged eye, a bloody accident victim and a man
with an iron bar jutting out of his stomach. Language is often also harsh.
The most remarked-upon change to NBC’s schedule
this fall has been the network’s decision to award longtime Tonight Show
host Jay Leno the 10:00 p.m. ET hour in prime-time…every night of the week!
The Jay Leno Show is rarely more risqué
than it was on Tonight, though this varies to an extent depending upon
Jay’s guest. Also, unlike the late-night Tonight, this program airs in
prime time (only nine o’clock in the Central and Mountain time zones), so
parents may want to exercise care in letting their children watch. Typical
recent sketches containing potentially problematic content for children have
included a jab at Amy Winehouse, featuring a ridiculously huge-breasted model
jogging, as well as innuendo about masturbation following the display of Serena
Williams’ nude (but carefully-posed) magazine cover.
In addition to Leno’s ten o’clock spot, Tuesdays
are dominated by a two-hour episode of weight-loss reality show
The Biggest Loser (8:00 p.m. ET). Though
bleeped language is frequent, the show is not problematic otherwise, and in fact
contains a positive message and sometimes poignant vignettes about its
contestants’ struggles to become healthy by losing weight.
Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m. ET feature another new
show this year, like Trauma one with an emphasis on medicine and
characters driven by personal problems.
Mercy focuses on a group of nurses, the
lead one of whom is promiscuous and also an Iraq war veteran, and who often has
graphic flashbacks to her wartime experiences. Language, sexual content and
violence are all graphic on this program.
Following Mercy is
Law & Order: SVU (9:00 p.m. ET), a spin-off
of NBC’s long-running Law & Order franchise. As must be expected from a
program focusing on victims of sexual abuse, sexual content and violence are
both graphic in the extreme on this program. One recent episode featured a
computer simulation of a murder; even the computer animation was extreme, with
one animated figure wielding a hammer, beating in an animated woman’s head with
it, with blood splattering all over the victim, the assailant and the room.
Another opened with the finding of a woman’s naked corpse in a suitcase, and
went on to tell the story of a wealthy man who hires an escort for a long-term
liaison and becomes involved with murder. Also included in this episode were
side references to women’s breasts, prostitution and a suspect who calls himself
the “Master Baiter.”
Thursdays on NBC are home to the network’s
largest night devoted to comedy. The new sitcom
Community (8:00 p.m. ET) deals with the
various losers enrolled in a community college. The program features occasional
sexual innuendo and language, but little of it is as graphic as on some of NBC’s
Parks and Recreation (8:30 p.m. ET) is
similar, with some episodes exploiting sex as a key to the show’s humor. This
season, the show has included references to sex and drug use, including one to
“four-way” sex. The wildly popular
The Office (9:00 p.m. ET) also features
occasional sexual humor, but as with the other programs mentioned this element
does not usually predominate. The evening’s last sitcom, the successful
30 Rock (9:30 p.m. ET), which deals with
the tribulations of the staff of a television network, features somewhat more
sexual content that the other shows of the evening, but still not to an extreme
extent. While ideally all of these shows would be completely family-friendly,
nevertheless NBC is to be commended for at least avoiding the excesses of such
competing networks’ programs like Two and a Half Men or Cougar Town.
NBC’s week ends on Fridays with the long-running
Law & Order (8:00 p.m. ET). Like so many
other crime dramas, L&O is obsessed with bloody corpses, bizarre sexual
practices, gory crime scenes and explicit language, and should be avoided by
children. One unfortunate effect of the placement of The Jay Leno Show at
ten o’clock every night is that programs like L&O, which do contain more
adult content, may no longer air in the 10:00 p.m. hour. Between Law & Order
and Leno on Fridays, NBC airs the newsmagazine Dateline or
occasional movies or specials in the 9:00 p.m. hour. Weekend prime time this
fall is devoted to football or reruns of the Law & Order franchise.
While no doubt many critics would claim that it
is the lack of “edgy,” graphically violent and sexually explicit programming
which is keeping NBC in last place, the warm reception given by audiences to the
Peacock network’s relatively clean Thursday-night lineup says otherwise.
Particularly in these difficult economic times, viewers are seeking out comedy;
and if Hollywood gives them programming that makes them laugh and does not
offend them, people will be more inclined to watch. It will be interesting to
see if NBC recognizes this trend, offers more family-friendly programming…and
sees its fortunes turn around.
This column was compiled from reports by the Parents
Television Council’s Analysis staff.