We watch... so you don't have to.


You may have noticed that lately, things have been getting a bit racy on basic cable. Those basic cable channels are responding to criticism of their relaxed nudity and profanity standards with a questionable cause-and-effect theory. Here's how the argument goes:

  • Premium cable networks have a lot of latitude when it comes to subject matter.
  • By "latitude," we mean "You can hear people say 'fuck' and see them all sorts of naked, and your mom's not around to change the channel."
  • This "latitude" is what keeps people tuning in to HBO.
  • If we're to compete with the premium channels in terms of viewership, we need some of that there latitude too.

So far, nobody has questioned the logic. Since F/X aired The Shield with a whole lot of swearing and a very naked murder victim and ended up with its highest-rated hour of programming since 1994, observers have concluded that correlation equals causation. Nobody bothered to examine whether the following might have helped: a heavy months-long promotional campaign, favorable critical reception, and even mordant curiosity on the part of viewers to see if F/X was capable of airing an original show that didn't suck.

Another alleged argument: ESPN simultaneously aired two versions of "Season on the Brink," the Bobby Knight biopic -- one with the dirty words left in on ESPN, and one with them removed on ESPN2. That the F-bomb-laden version did better in the ratings than the sanitized version proves that television audiences want their entertainment raunchy. Nowhere does this argument mention that ESPN2 has a much smaller cable audience than ESPN, nor does it ask if people perhaps preferred that a movie about a famously foul-mouthed coach actually had some representation of that character trait.

The cable networks' final argument is just too good to paraphrase:

Even CBS got in on the act on March 10 when it broadcast the 9/11 documentary about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Firefighters could be heard repeatedly swearing up a storm. Such language was rarely, if ever, heard before on network TV. Using WPEC, the CBS affiliate in West Palm Beach, as an example, a station spokesman said there had been no language complaints.

Granted, America is stocked with idiots who don't hesitate to complain about the picayune without provocation, but it would take a rare breed of moron to watch a documentary featuring people who went to their death in the name of duty, then pick up the phone to tell their local affiliates, "Those fireman had potty mouths! How dare you!"

After digesting these arguments, I was ready to unleash a torrent of basic cable-approved invective: using three anecdotal and largely unsupported examples of anomalies in cable and network programming, someone's managed to cobble together the argument that people like their television raunchy? What the -- oh, wait. Basic cable profanity. What the hell?

To be sure, there is such a thing as the lowest common denominator. You're always going to have people whose faces glaze like a donut the minute Kim Cattrall begins bouncing around in the altogether, or giggle uncontrollably when Kyle and Stan begin chanting four-letter words. If someone wants to base their business strategy on catering to the bottom-feeders, fine. I'll know not to watch that channel.

But I think the article sells television watchers short. Believe it or not, people don't tune in to shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City or Oz because they get off on the FCC-forbidden fruits of nudity or profanity. They tune in because the writing is better, the acting is better, and the overall viewing experience is more rewarding.

Do people on these shows get naked? Sometimes, yes. Do they use bad language? Sometimes, yes. But in the case of all four shows cited, both these "raunch" elements are used to tell the story; take the cursing away from Oz and you've lost a lot of credibility in the dialogue. Take away the sex in Sex and the City and you've got... um, a live-action issue of Jane magazine? Do some of these shows veer into the gratuitous from time to time? Sure -- if I had a nickel for every unnecessary F-bomb dropped during the course of a Six Feet Under episode, I'd be able to upgrade my cable package.

However, to argue that those shows are only the beneficiaries of America's hang-ups with sex and swearing only perpetuates the idea that both activities are somehow naughty and we television watchers but guilty adolescents tuning in for prurient thrills. Moreover, it also ignores any of the myriad reasons these shows have rabid viewerships and critical acclaim.

The pity here is not that television viewers are largely portrayed as idiots -- every third article about television infers that the people who watch it are mouth-breathing proles, so this argument hardly breaks new ground. The shame is that facile analyses of why some shows work and some don't inevitably lead to poorly thought-out conclusions, and the overall quality of television will go down until cable executives really are faced with the audience they think they have now.


TeeVee - About Us - Archive - Where We Are Now

Got a comment? Mail us at teevee@teevee.org.

* * *