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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 behind NBC.


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 seasons.


The new show Trauma (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! Content on 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 other shows. 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.


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


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