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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.

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Comment by Brian Bird on December 18, 2014 at 2:13pm

Point well taken, Bryan. "Prude" is sometimes used as a pejorative or condescending term by those who believe themselves to be more enlightened. While I don't actually consider myself prudish in the definitive sense, I was making the point that I'm even willing to wear their label (not mine) if that means giving them a wake-up call on their faulty thinking. But thanks for the challenge. Agree with you wholeheartedly.   

Comment by Bryan Gough on December 17, 2014 at 2:19pm

Great article, thanks. 

My only comment is to address the word "prudish" and what I believe is its misuse. I'm never a fan of embracing labels that incorrectly identify what's contained within. The definition means "easily shocked by matters relating to sex or nudity." By accepting this term, we are admitting that we are easily shocked by the direction the industry is heading. Are we? Are we shocked by matters relating to sex and nudity in an industry that is largely dependent on selling and consuming sex and nudity?

Or, does our "shock" stem from some deeper insight into the sacred role of sex and the sacred nature of the human body? Are we prudish, or are we discerning? 

With regards to the incident of ABC's Scandal show airing a sex scene on the tail of Charlie Brown Halloween Special... it wasn't the sex/partial nudity that was shocking. It was the lack of discernment demonstrated by the network. My shock is a response to the lack of responsibility and total disregard for developmental psychology. 

This "shock" happens all the time. Sunday afternoon football—an American pastime—is interspersed with horrific movie trailers, totally inappropriate for the four year olds playing on the living room floor, double-dipping the chips and dip. Are advertisers really concerned about targeting the right demographic, or casting the biggest net? Never mind the innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. 

Let's not accept the title of prudes. There are people that are prudish—those who have been sheltered from sex and nudity and don't know what to do with themselves when confronted by it. That is prudish. Then there are those that are fully aware of the Hollywood paradigm and are not shocked by the sex and nudity, per se. It's an inevitable destination for a broken and consumptive world view. However, I am angered by the absence of discernment for, and thus endorsement of, the bludgeoning hand that wields inappropriate content against our kids.

What shocks me is how often I forget that this irresponsible thinking is the pilot of the ship. 

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