WB: The Very Model of a Modern Network?
by L. Brent Bozell III
Recently, the broadcast television networks took a little time off from worrying about viewer desertion to host the nation's TV critics on their annual winter visit to southern California. One network executive, WB CEO Jamie Kellner, made waves - of sorts.
In the days of the Big Three - ABC, CBS, and NBC, in case you've forgotten - were an executive to claim he didn't care if his web ever finished first in the overall Nielsens, he would have been shown the door. Yet Kellner expressed just such a sentiment to the critics.
According to the Washington Post's Lisa de Moraes, Kellner "likened the TV industry today to the radio industry - a multitude of programming sources going after niche audiences." The WB has been reaching its niche audience of 18-to-34-year-olds so effectively this season that it's been gaining viewers while every other network has been losing them. As for serving today's most underserved audience - families -- the WB is in the middle of the network pack, airing both the positive ("7th Heaven") and the trash ("Dawson's Creek").
The WB's targeting of young adults, and its spotty record regarding family-friendly shows, leaves a lot of children and older adult viewers up for grabs. That's where currently slumping NBC comes in -- maybe.
The network's new entertainment boss, Scott Sassa, told critics that future Peacock programming would feature not only "less emphasis on sex," wrote de Moraes, but also "more traditional families."
The critics, de Moraes added, were "stunned," since they've "spent the past several years listening to broadcast executives defend [the frequency of sexual content] as reflective of modern sensibilities." In fact, in terms of small-screen smut, NBC has been the leader for several years, thanks mostly to Sassa's predecessor, Warren Littlefield.
Don't misunderstand Sassa. His is purely a business move. He doesn't have a moral problem with all the sitcoms that giggle and wink at promiscuity. Truth is, as the New York Times' Bill Carter noted, to Sassa, it's "the sameness of so many of the [sexy] shows, more than any personal objection to [them], that inspired his comments."
"I'm not trying to create the Family Channel here," Sassa stated. "For the most part, when sex is used in a smart way it works out OK." Translation: Witty lustfulness ("Just Shoot Me") good; witless lustfulness ("Veronica's Closet") bad. He also remarked that he wants "more words [in scripts] between 'Hello' and 'Will you sleep with me...'" even though it's unlikely that two of those words will be "I do." All in all, if there are two or three family shows worthy of the name on NBC in the fall, that's two or three more than there are now.
What about the disaster area formerly known as UPN? It has tried to appeal to a broad audience, but has done so with generally insipid fare. Instead of adding more series like "Moesha" (wholesome and, by the network's standards, a hit), UPN plans edgier, Fox-style programming. In the works are "Quints," which the network calls "'South Park' with females," and "Swingers," which reportedly is similar to HBO's racy "Sex and the City."
And speaking of Fox, it's still pushing the envelope: "Family Guy" debuts January 31 in the post-Super Bowl time slot. TV Guide describes this animated cartoon as a "cross-pollinat[ion] of 'The Simpsons' [and] 'Married...With Children,'" adding that one featured character is "an evil infant called Stewie, who plots matricide and mind control between feedings." Fox entertainment chief Doug Herzog told critics that the crude "South Park" - the pride of his old cable network, Comedy Central - isn't appropriate for broadcast TV, but, wrote de Moraes, "added hopefully [that] public opinion is changing all the time."
It's in that spirit that one scratches his head, wondering about former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, who served as a consultant for an episode of the NBC sitcom "Lateline" and contributed two jokes to the script. The show's producers wanted to use both, but, as "Lateline" creator and star Al Franken told the Post, the network vetoed one of them because it was "too racy."
It seems like Mr. Reed is trying to create his own market niche, doesn't it?
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