“Designated Survivor” As a Case Study for TV Without Threat of Indecency Enforcement

Written by PTC | Published October 18, 2019

Over the years we have heard repeatedly from TV executives, lobbyists and lawyers that indecency laws are unnecessary. That they aren’t going to start inserting more inappropriate content just because they can.But one series that originated on broadcast TV and was subsequently picked-up by Netflix provides a stark example of what we might see happen on broadcast TV in the absence of decency laws.Designated Survivor was originally developed for ABC for the 2017-18 television season, with an intriguing premise rooted in the heretofore little-known continuity of government plan put in place during the Cold War: The designated survivor is an individual in the presidential line of succession who is to be kept at a secure, undisclosed location during events like Inaugurations or The State of the Union – events where the president and vice president, and most of the immediate successors would be present -- allowing for the government to continue in the case of a catastrophic event.In the series premiere, such a catastrophic event does occur when a bomb explodes inside the US Capitol during the State of the Union; leaving a low-level cabinet member, Tom Kirkman, to rebuild the government from the ground-up while also working to uncover who was behind the deadly plot.Keifer Sutherland returns to TV in his first role since Jack Bauer on Fox’s 24 as the scrupulously honest, idealistic, and politically naïve Tom Kirkman. Beyond the catchy premise, the writers don’t seem to have given much thought to where they wanted the story to go. At times Designated Survivor seems to want to be The West Wing: Part II; at others, it seems to want to be more like 24. Even more interesting than the series is watching what happened to the age-based ratings on this series from season to season. The first two seasons aired on ABC. Most of the first season episodes were rated TV-PG, a handful of episodes with higher levels of violence were rated TV-14. The second season flipped that: most episodes were rated TV-14, with just a few getting the less restrictive PG-rating. After the second season, ABC dropped the series, and Netflix picked it up. Every episode of the series’ third season, distributed exclusively by Netflix, was rated TV-MA.And that MA-rating is warranted. To choose just one example, according to streaming video filtering service VidAngelTM, in the first ten episodes of season 3, the “f-word” was used 67 times. It was not used at all in the first two seasons. The same is true for the “s-word,” depictions of nudity, and other sexual situations; none of which writers seemed to deem necessary to carry the plot forward when the series aired on ABC.Was there market research that said viewers who had no interest in the series when it aired on ABC as a PG or even TV-14 series would definitely watch if writers added TV-MA content? Doubtful. So what made the difference? They did it because they could. On Netflix, there are no content restrictions. Decency laws don’t apply. Advertisers have no influence.If you were ever in any doubt that the broadcast decency laws are the only thing keeping the TV industry in check; Designated Survivor is all the proof you need.

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