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A new normal: Why broadcast shows are looking more like cable

Published: Thursday, Sept. 13 2012 5:35 p.m. MDT

On a recent weekday morning, host Matt Lauer brought NBC’s “The Today Show” back from a commercial break. He introduced his next guest, actress Ellen Barkin, as a star in the new NBC sitcom “The New Normal.”

A 17-second clip from the pilot episode of “The New Normal” then aired.

During those 17 seconds Barkin’s character, Jane Forrest, first derisively described a lesbian couple as appearing to be “proud as gay peacocks.” Forrest, in an apparent attempt to soften the blow of her bigoted remarks, then said, “I happen to love the gays — I could never get my hair to look this good without them.”

As the clip ended, Lauer made a curious move: He started his interview with Barkin by aggressively commenting about the edgy content of “The New Normal.”

“Let me tell you about a dilemma: We like to run clips,” Lauer said. “We had a hard time finding a clip from this show for morning TV. That one we actually shortened because you go on to say something after that that we probably couldn’t run. This show pushes the envelope a little bit.”

One of the faces of the NBC network was telling his viewing audience that he could not air a normal-length snippet from his employer’s new sitcom, because the content would’ve been inappropriate for 8:30 in the morning.

Indeed, this unusual juxtaposition involving “The New Normal” is actually endemic of a growing trend: Some media watchdogs say primetime shows on over-the-air networks such as NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX are increasingly resembling the content of cable competitors, shifting toward edgier standards in broadcast standards.

A new normal

Premium cable shows like “Game of Thrones” (HBO), “Dexter” (Showtime) and “Spartacus” (STARZ) create cultural buzz with episodes that flaunt explicit sexual content and ultra-violent mayhem. Critics say such programming has provided executives from broadcast networks with ammunition in their arguments that the Federal Communications Commission should relax its content standards that govern over-the-air shows.

“For at least five years, and possibly as many as 10 years, we’ve heard executives from ABC-NBC-CBS and the other broadcast networks arguing that they have to be able to compete with premium cable channels,” said Melissa Henson, the Parents Television Council’s director of communications and public education. “They’ve been telegraphing their intent to push the content envelope, and we’ve seen a dramatic spike.”

To substantiate her position, she pointed to the content analysis her organization released last month, “PTC Finds Shocking Spike in Full Nudity on Broadcast TV,” that “compared depictions of full nudity (private parts obscured) during the 2010–11 prime-time broadcast television season to depictions during the 2011–12 season and found the number ballooned from 15 incidents to 76.”

“This is really part of a pattern, a concerted effort on the part of broadcast executives to really blur the lines of what’s acceptable for broadcast TV and what’s acceptable for premium cable,” Henson said.

Fatal flaws

Watchdogs say there are at least two significant problems to arguing that premium cable programming is a justification for loosening the content standards of broadcast shows. First, even the most popular shows on premium cable draw significantly smaller audiences than comparable over-the-air programming. So why would a network want to mimic the cable show?

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