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?

For example, last year the “Game of Thrones” series premiere drew approximatley 2.2 million viewers and the season finale drew about 3.04 million sets of eyeballs. Those numbers were big enough to induce HBO to renew the series. However, for primetime programming on broadcast networks an audience of only 3 million viewers would likely result in immediate cancellation. Indeed, consider the fate of “The Playboy Club” — the show NBC cancelled in 2011 after its three episodes averaged “only” 4 million viewers per showing.

Second, industry experts note that the business models of premium cable and broadcast television are inherently different. Whereas HBO is purely in the business of selling subscriptions, broadcast networks must sell advertisements to survive. And, in fact, watchdog groups have successfully pressured advertisers to drop commercials during shows the groups deem objectionable.

“I think it’s important for us to have a good understanding of where we stand in our relationship with the networks,” Henson said. “I think most of us tend to assume wrongly that we are the audience that networks are programming for, and that if they’re putting this stuff out there it must mean there’s a demand for it. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

“We are actually the product, and the consumer that they’re trying to reach is the company that’s buying ad time. And they’re selling us as eyeballs that are going to see those ads.”

Perception becomes reality

The idea that broadcast programming increasingly emulates cable offerings carries with it the strong implication that cable shows are simply the better fare at this point in time. And that belief — putting aside the question of whether it's a valid presumption — is manifesting itself in myriad ways.

Consider, for example, this year's six contenders for the primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. For the first time ever, not a single nominee comes from one of the four major broadcast networks: HBO and AMC each produced two nominated series, while Showtime and PBS yielded one nominee apiece.

To that end, the New York Times' Mike Hale openly wondered last week whether critics are withholding praise from several excellent broadcast programs purely because the shows don't hail from a cable outlet.

"The real victims of cable envy — the notion that creativity and distinction in TV drama now lie entirely with cable channels like AMC, HBO and Showtime and their model of short seasons, serialized stories and writer-producer autonomy — are the shows that don’t get the credit they deserve because the attention of critics, and the TV industry itself, is so firmly focused elsewhere," Hale wrote.

Silver linings

It isn’t all bad news if network programming adopts certain characteristics of cable shows, some TV critics say. For example, new primetime series such as FOX’s comedy “The Mindy Project” and ABC’s drama “Nashville” are earning a consensus of rave reviews for sophistication and scope.

Common Sense Media TV editor Sierra Filucci noted that when objectionable content appears on broadcast television during primetime programming, parents who watch the shows together with their children can translate those moments into invaluable opportunities to casually dialogue with their teens.

"It’s certainly challenging for parents because there are so many more places for kids to consume media, and there’s so much more media out there," Filucci said. "It’s not just network television, and it’s not just one television in the living room that kids can watch. Kids are watching on their phones, on their computers, on cable …

"(But) our No. 1 message is still to talk to kids and keep the lines of communication open, and as much as possible to watch alongside kids — especially primetime TV, which can be a great time for families to hang out in the living room and watch TV together. A lot of that content is not appropriate for younger kids and tweens, but it can be something that teenagers and their parents can watch together and then just talk about what happens."

J.G. Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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