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The Television Business:

Tiny, Isolated, Out of Touch


But the problems that the television industry has in connecting with most viewers is not just due to "the suits" or pressure from Madison Avenue. The problems also stem from the fact that the television world is very, very small, quite isolated, and very much out of touch with mainstream America.

The television network and production community is concentrated in two relatively small and somewhat inbred communities in New York and LA. Though network decisionmakers see a lot of studies about the American public, few of them can be said to be "in touch" with the values that most Americans share. They don't get out much. In the slang of the business, the 3,000 miles (and nearly 270 million people) between New York and LA are referred to as "flyover land," and is spoken of with some disdain. Yet this is where most of the viewers are!

The isolation of television executives may also be to blame for some of the racial and gender stereotyping that still pervades network programming. Though a few women have broken into the top ranks, they are few; the execs are still hugely white and male. In their rarified and isolated world, many of them will hardly ever see an Hispanic who is not a pool maintenance person, a landscape worker, or a domestic. Perhaps this explains the difficulty Hispanic actors have getting decent parts. Some progress has been made after enormous pressure, but it is relatively small; older women have lost ground, and many cannot find decent parts after they pass forty.

As the push into the gutter has accelerated over the last twenty years, the networks have cultivated and rewarded new writers and producers who were "good" at the cheaper, "edgier" shows that the execs were looking for. The result is what might be expected; fine writers don't get work and leave the business, and raunchy, "edgy" writers populate the business. This trend has accelerated in both New York and LA until writers over 30 cannot find work.

One television veteran pointed to this trend as the problem: "Writers write about what they know," he said. "What these writers know is sex and drugs. They don't have families."

This is part of what happened to NBC's abortive attempt to create more "family friendly" programming. In 1999, incoming NBC President Scott Sassa announced a push to create more family programming, in part to fill the void left when ABC's Home Improvement was canceled. However, NBC's efforts proved unsuccessful - in part because they just didn't have people talented at "non-edgy" or "family-friendly." In 2002, Sassa announced that they were "pulling the plug" on family-friendly programming and identifying themselves as an "adult programming network."

This is aggravated by the fact that the artistic community is usually somewhat out of phase with regular working folks. This is a tension that has always existed; but when you add in the values promoted in the television community - values that equate "pushing the envelope" of taste and vulgarity with "art" - and the result is the sort of programming that we are seeing today.

From a business point of view, the "suits" need to come to grips with the fact that the major networks have lost - probably permanently - over half of the viewing public in America, who have simply tuned out and turned off. A goodly portion of those whose televisions are still turned on tune in to CNN, Fox News, HGTV, A&E, and the History Channel and stay away from the "Big Four" almost completely.

Advertisers are beginning to figure this out, and have realized that they are missing out on some of the "eyeballs" they want to sell their products to. A group of advertisers, led by Andrea Alstrup of Johnson & Johnson, recently formed a cooperative initiative to fund more family friendly programming that they could be comfortable advertising their products on.

The Family Friendly Programming Forum includes 40 advertisers, mostly heavy hitters like Johnson & Johnson, Sears, Hershey's, Proctor & Gamble, Pepsi, Kellogs, etc. They put together a script development fund to help in the development of family program pilots. The initial reaction of the networks was cool indeed; finally, the tiny WB network signed an agreement and has developed a number of programs. ABC, CBS, and NBC have finally signed on, though NBC appears to have made little use of the effort.

Family Friendly Programming Forum