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Extreme Cable Programs NOT What Viewers Want

By Christopher Gildemeister


Hollywood is full of “conventional wisdom” – but if history teaches anything, it is that such “conventional wisdom” is limited, and often openly wrong. For years many advertisers believed that “sex sells,” and many advertising campaigns are still based on this idea; but increasingly, the success of the Twilight phenomenon is demonstrating that, in fact, chaste romance is far more successful with a young female demographic.


Another such claim in the entertainment industry is that, for a television program to be a success, it must imitate the “edgiest” and most extreme content on cable. But in believing this, those in the entertainment industry are largely substituting their own tastes instead of actually paying attention to what viewers actually are choosing to watch.


Extreme and graphic cable programs like Nip/Tuck, Dexter, True Blood and others do have some fans. However, such fans actually make up a very small portion of the entire TV audience. The vast majority of TV viewers have repeatedly demonstrated a preference for family-friendly programming…on the rare occasion when the networks offer it.


A recent article in the Los Angeles Times exemplifies the disconnect between many in the entertainment industry and the audiences they supposedly serve. The article claims that, because many broadcast TV programs were nominated for Emmy Awards this year, broadcast programming must be imitating that of cable.


Yet the broadcast programs nominated are successful precisely because they did NOT imitate the extreme profanity, gore, and explicit sex of the cable programs beloved by the industry. Which broadcast shows were nominated for Emmys? Glee. Modern Family. The Good Wife. The PTC does not consider any of these shows ideal programming for children; but the point is that they are nowhere near as bad as the dramas on cable, or even on most of the rest of broadcast TV.


The Good Wife is a drama about a woman struggling to hold her family together in the face of her politician husband’s disgrace. Modern Family is a mostly traditional family sitcom about a non-traditional but still loving family. Both programs feature little profanity, practically no violence, and limited references to sex. The Times article compares The Good Wife to various cable dramas which feature a strong woman protagonist: FX’s Damages, and TNT’s Saving Grace and The Closer. Notably, the article neglects to point out that all three of the cable dramas also feature graphic violence and explicit sex, whereas The Good Wife doesn’t.

But the best demonstration of this point is Fox’s Glee. While there are several sexual themes in the show that should concern parents – despite its setting and musical theme, Glee is definitely not High School MusicalGlee is beloved by its fans for its music and generally upbeat attitude. Considering that the show’s creator Ryan Murphy also created the FX network’s horrifically graphic sex-and-gore drama Nip/Tuck, what stands out most about Glee is how (relatively) clean and restrained it is. If the Times article’s premise was correct, both The Good Wife and Modern Family would be wallowing in explicit sex and bloodshed – and Glee probably wouldn’t be on the air at all. Certainly, none of them would have received multiple Emmy nominations. 


Unfortunately, many programs on broadcast TV have tried to imitate the more explicit content on cable – and have paid the price in plunging viewership. Shows like CBS’ 2008 summer drama Swingtown have used explicitly graphic sexual themes…and have driven both viewers and advertisers away in droves as a result. In fact, the week of July 5-11, 2010, TV hit a record low.  


CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox together had the smallest number of prime-time viewers in the two decades since records have been kept. Given the fact that those networks totally dominated ratings prior to the current decade, this represents a historic low point: since television first became widespread in American homes, there has never been as little interest in prime-time programming as there is today.


In his famed 1961 speech, during which he condemned television programming as a “vast wasteland,” then-FCC Chairman Newton Minow told an assembly of TV network presidents, “I do not accept the idea that the present over-all programming is aimed accurately at the public taste. A rating, at best, is an indication of how many people saw what you gave them. It never reveals what the acceptance would have been if what you gave them had been better.” The entertainment industry’s obsession with explicit sex, extreme language, toilet humor, and graphic violence has prevented them from offering viewers programming they actually want; and when they do offer family programming, the viewers watch it. 


That much of the audience disdain for TV is due to the lack of programming appropriate for families is obvious. The biggest hit on broadcast TV is consistently Fox’s family-friendly song competition American Idol. During its airing on NBC April 16th, the family movie Secrets of the Mountain attained the network’s highest viewership of any program that week. (At this writing, the Internet Movie Database lists Secrets as being “up 454% in popularity this week”.) And it is likely that the airing of The Jensen Project will achieve similar results. 


Even the network executives themselves realize this: the networks held Glee and Modern Family out to viewers as “family-friendly” programs…with the result that viewers watched them.


For all the Times article claims that network execs acted “boldly” in their programming decisions, in fact this “bold new direction” is one that executives of yesteryear would easily recognize: make a program with as broad an appeal, and as inoffensive to as many, as possible. The executives at Fox, NBC, CBS and Fox have achieved success not by pushing the envelope, but by pushing away from it.


The Times article states that the Emmy Awards are “a reflection of how the TV business wants to see itself than how it really is.” Much the same could be said about the presumptions in that article – and, indeed, about the extreme, explicit cable programming the entertainment industry chooses to promote. But the message told by both the Emmys and the ratings are clear: show families programs they want to watch, and they will watch them; give them programs choked with profanity, darkness, sex, and gore, and they will turn away.


How many more failures must the TV industry endure before Hollywood gets the message?

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


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