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Time to Take Hollywood to the Woodshed

I woke up this morning to find this Hollywood Reporter article in my in-box.  I thought I had stumbled onto a porn site.  I actually don’t even want to repeat the headline.  You can read it for yourself.  But suffice to say, it’s time to take my own industry to the woodshed.

Apparently some of the broadcast TV networks and writer-producers have so much HBO envy that there are no envelopes they aren’t willing to push anymore. At Emmy time, the pay-cable networks seem take home most of the hardware for their boundary pushing content. Remember, HBO’s branding slogan: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Well, for a lot of the executives, buyers and content creators on broadcast TV, the way to cure your Envy-Green is go to Blue.

This season, broadcast TV isn’t for the prudish. Nearly two months into the fall, it’s clear that explicit jokes and boundary-pushing storylines are changing the definition of what sexual content is acceptable in prime­time.

— Tim Winter, President, Parents Television Council

This is happening on the networks (CBS, NBC, Disney-owed ABC, and FOX) that people use to receive for free on their rabbit ears over the public airwaves, the same networks that used to be regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. But now, because we pay a few cents or dollars for their feed on our cable or satellite bills every month, they are now considered pay-TV, hence virtually no FCC oversight. That’s the marketplace at work. These very same broadcasters used to have robust “Standards and Practices” departments which would encourage restraint and discretion on the parts of the writers, producers and production companies so as not to ambush public tastes. Apparently, these S & P execs, right along with the feeble FCC, have now gone AWOL.

The Frog in the Beaker

Okay, call me a prude. I’ve worked on family-themed films and TV shows for most of my career, including such series as Touched By An Angel, Step By Step and Evening Shade, and Michael Landon Jr. and I currently have a family-friendly series called When Calls the Heart going into production of Season 2. I’ll wear the prude tag like a badge of honor because what we’re producing is not vanilla or “soft” as some in the industry  might call it. It’s actually radical, revolutionary, counter-programming because very few others are actually producing content like this these days. Not that many years ago, all of the big networks competed with each other to put family-themed programming on TV every day of the week, but that’s not the case anymore. In fact, most people I know can’t name 10 shows on TV any longer that they can watch with their families.

I have no intention of changing what’s happening on Scandal at 9, (Shondra Rhimes told the Hollywood Reporter). That will be interesting. I look forward to being censored.

Remember the high school biology experiment where you put a frog in a beaker of room temperature water and then slowly heat up the water over a Bunsen burner? The frog splashes about as it acclimates to the rising temperature.

Until it boils to death.

As the networks seem to want to chase pay-cable over the cliff into dark, depraved and perverse, could it be that we’re all boiling to death and we don’t even realize it?

The Big Cop Out

I’ve had conversations with some of my peers who work on what used to be called “10 o’clock programming” but which now pretty much rules the airwaves at all times of the day and night. They say they are just reflecting culture when they drop language bombs or feature ever-increasing sexual explicitness in their programs.

In my opinion, that’s horse-(language bomb) and an extraordinary cop out. They are not just reflecting culture, they are shaping it and leading it… right over that cliff. Media sometimes reflects, but it mostly teaches. And if that’s not so, how come advertisers spend 20 bazillion dollars a year to try to teach us to buy their products? If media doesn’t teach, persuade, shape or influence our behavior, that money would never be spent. Media creates culture.

Nobody asks us what we want to watch on TV. A tiny cadre of people in Hollywood just decide what they are going to offer us and hope we get addicted. The only measurement is how many eyeballs they can attract and hold onto week after week. It’s completely utilitarian thinking. The bottom line is money and people’s values be damned. The question of whether or not it is good for culture is no longer a concern because the audience gets to decide what it likes or doesn’t like. What’s the difference between that and handing out crack cocaine on a street corner and then saying it’s up to us to be responsible crack-users?

Don’t get me wrong.  I have watched and enjoyed many programs that I would never purposely invite my kids to watch. Some of the story-telling,  production values and insights into the human condition are phenomenal and worthy of viewing.

But where is the balance?

I challenge you to take my Family TV dare: Name 10 current shows on TV you can watch with your entire family (and real estate, gardening and cooking shows don’t count). If you can do that, them maybe I’m just tilting at windmills. But if you can’t do it, I urge you to share your strong feelings with the switchboards at the networks and the advertisers who are spending a great deal money trying to lure your eyeballs.

The water is heating up all around us.

About Brian Bird

17 Replies

  1. Just when things seem they’re at their worst is when the pendulum begins to swing back. I think more family friendly programming will be in demand near future. If network television wants to take us over the cliff, they’ll have to go alone. The rest of us will start looking elsewhere for decent story-telling and entertainment. Let the networks continue to decline, perhaps into oblivion. Online NETworks will take their place.

  2. Karen M.

    Great article! It’s time for us to show the networks that this is not okay with us. I’d like to be able to watch tv with my family again. Keep up the good work Brian!

  3. I’m trying. I am writing two pilots right now.

  4. anne guy

    Thanks Brian! I proudly wear my ‘prude’ badge as well. Some of my friends will roll their eyes at me when I tell them why I don’t watch show X or Y and tell me I’m not in touch with what’s ‘really’ going on in the world. Then there are other friends who feel the same as I, SO much negativity out there and they actively choose, to change the channel. Good for them and good for you!

  5. Hi Mr. Bird,
    This is definitely good food for thought!
    A few questions to further the discussion… I know this year has seen a lot of Christian movies come out. Why do you think that this hasn’t also translated into more family-friendly programming coming out? Is all the attention focused on stoking the fire in the world of cinema? or has the success of shows like “Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” etc. just proved too juicy an apple for audiences to chew on something else?
    Thanks for you thoughts.
    Cheers,
    A.

  6. Mary Jo Vincent

    Mr. Bird: If there is such a group titled “Prude” I would like to join. I commend you for your forthright article. Please note you have close to 20,000 “Hearties” through Facebook and others who are not registered but following silently in total agreement with your comments. I totally support you and Mr. Landon’s creation for a wonderful family centered program titled When Calls the Heart and future family center programs. Television is in a disaster mode at this time. Sometimes it takes a small ripple effect to develop which leads to a full blown tsunami before people, government and Hollywood wake up and become aware were are currently in a critical disaster. My hat is off to you. Thank-you for your courage and responsibility to step forward and be an extraordinary example of the type of executive that is admired and respected by so many to clearly state your position. You are doing a great job of serving the purpose of returning the industry to focus on family centered television. We are honored for your advocacy position.

  7. It’s a great question, Aaron. I believe we are hearing some ripples of new interest in family programming.There are two factors. The buyers and creators of edgy programming live in a bit of a bubble. They are small, powerful, influential group of people whose world views are at the center of what they create. By default, they dictate what we see and hear because they are in control of the process. Because they get decent ratings, they feel emboldened to go ever further in pushing the envelope. But money and ratings also talk. If people reward good behavior in the movies and on TV, more of that behavior will show up because it makes money. Two things we can do: patronize the good programming with our eyeballs and pocketbooks (call and write the networks and advertisers, thank them for putting these shows on the air and promise to buy lots of their products); and ignore the bad programming (don’t spend time, which equals ratings, or spend money or buy the products advertised). Additionally, write or call the networks and advertisers to let them know you won’t be watching or buying their products.

  8. Thanks, Mary Jo. Your support is huge!

  9. Keep the faith, and let the networks and advertisers of the programs you do feel are worthy know how much you like them… and tell them you are going to buy their products.

  10. Thanks! Also let the networks and advertisers know what you do love, and reward them by buying their products and letting them know you are doing it!

  11. From your lips to god’s ears, Dave. And I mean the network and advertisers gods, in this case!

  12. Hey big brother! I’m proud of the stance that you are taking. Keep up the good work and know that we support you!

    Dennis

  13. Jeri

    Thank you, Mr. Bird, for taking Hollywood to the woodshed. I’ve been dismayed at the explicit content that is escaping censorship in our network viewing. The Shonda Rhymes triple-play Thursday night line up has such inappropriate sexual content that I agree it qualifies as pornographic and should be allowed on pay-per-view only. If I’m remembering correctly there’s not even a warning to viewers before the shows come on. But it’s not only sexual content that’s gotten gotten completely out of hand, graphic violence has become the norm rather than the exception. Within the last three weeks I’ve seen two shows where characters had their eyes pulled out with one scene taking the extra unnecessary step of having the perpetrator eat the eyeball. That type of gratitous pushing the envelope is disturbing and disgusting.

    I believe the networks feel they’ve protected themselves against criticism by placing the warning label at the beginning of the shows and after each commercial break. I feel, however, that this is a crutch that needs to be removed before we cross the line further into the darkness.

  14. Noted. Thanks, Brian!

  15. “Spot on!” Really enjoyed your comments when you received MFI award! Glad we share Pastor Bob Reith/Ron Henry! Hope we can break bread in the new year! Jimmy Wilson

  16. Well said, thought provoking and needs to be read by many in the industry. Thanks Brian!

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