Brought to you by the Parents Television
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.
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 Musical – Glee 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
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
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?
This column was compiled from reports by the Parents
Television Council’s Analysis staff.