Confusion at the Top
by L. Brent Bozell III
Figures from the February sweeps period indicate that the
broadcast television networks continue to lose prime time viewers --
specifically, more than a million households in that month. As usual, the
networks' response to the decline was to complain about the
information-gathering methods of the Nielsen ratings company. "I don't
trust their numbers at all," groused NBC's west coast president, Don
Ohlmeyer, in a New York Times interview. "They're trying to measure
21st-century technology with an abacus."
Now the webs have gone beyond whining. ABC, CBS, and NBC
have helped finance the development of a not-yet-ready alternative ratings
system called SMART (Systems for Measuring and Reporting Television).
Evidently, they're willing to pay $40 million rather than deal with the
biggest reason for their diminishing audience -- the plethora of programming
that's vulgar, offensive, and just plain DUMB.
A look at a few midseason replacement shows illustrates
the sordid state of prime time. On the January 8 premiere of NBC's sitcom
"Chicago Sons," the thirtyish Harry fantasizes about inviting an
attractive female office colleague, Lindsay, to a bed-and-breakfast,
"where we'll eat pralines off each other's naked bodies." In a
subsequent scene, Harry and Lindsay watch a couple have sex in an adjacent
That episode set the tone for this series. The next week,
Lindsay tells Harry, "You know, if you flip through [the Victoria's
Secret catalogue] backwards, it's like your own little lap dance." On
February 5, Harry and his brother Mike's girlfriend debate when a couple
should have sex for the first time. He says it should happen on the fifth
date; she, more traditional, says it shouldn't happen until the seventh. A
bit later, Harry learns that his current flame plans to hold out until
(gasp!) the twelfth date.
But this is television and we don't have time to wait for
the twelfth, or even the fifth, date. So, on the February 12 episode, two
"Chicago Sons" regulars do it without any dates at all. Harry,
Mike, their brother Billy, and Lindsay go to the Bahamas for a vacation;
their first night there, Mike sleeps with the woman who owns the resort, and
Lindsay beds the resort's umbrella boy. By the way, each of these episodes
was rated TV-PG, meaning that NBC judged them suitable for everyone save
young children, and each aired at 8:30 PM on the coasts (7:30 PM in middle
America), smack in the middle of the "family hour." Thank you,
Broadcast opposite "Chicago Sons" on Wednesdays,
hopefully temporarily, is CBS's "Temporarily Yours." On the March
5 debut, a woman receives a letter from her baseball-player husband that
reads, "Every night, I sit in my lonely hotel room rubbing mink oil
into my mitt, wishing it was your sweet, soft rump." The woman later
gripes, "Nothing is filthy within the blessed sacrament of marriage
except, of course, contraception." Vulgarities and profanities like
"ass" and "bastard" are tossed out with abandon. In
short, the show is garbage. And, yes, CBS rated "Temporarily
ABC's family-hour drama "Spy Game," which
premiered March 3, is no prize either. There's plenty of gratuitous violence
for the kids: a man is killed in a bombing, another man is hit by a car and
thrown high into the air, and a third is strangled. The dialogue is equally
sophisticated: when two male spies argue over authority, a female colleague
interjects, "Guys, guys, before we get the rulers out and start
measuring..." Predictably, ABC rated "Spy Game" TV-PG.
Fox's Pauly Shore replacement vehicle, "Pauly,"
airs at 9:30 and has been rated TV-14, yet still would deserve censure for
broadcasting something this stupid even at 3 AM. An exchange from the March
3 debut is representative. When a woman tells Pauly, "I have bras that
work harder than you," he answers, "Your bras may be working, but
it looks like your panties took the day off."
Imagine turning on the set after a hard day at work,
desiring only to be entertained. You stumble onto "Chicago Sons,"
"Spy Game," or "Pauly." Just how long (a minute?) will
it take for you to hit the remote and flip over to another station? Or
access the Internet? Or read a book? To acknowledge this is to acknowledge
the obvious. Television today is a wasteland. So Ohlmeyer and Co. instead
blame the ratings system. How much longer will this continue before the
networks admit they are the problem and take the initiative to restore
quality to television? That would be the right thing to do, and it would
cost them a whole lot less than $40 million.
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