Monday, November 22, 2004

NY Times, in Reviewing the Politics of Television Viewing, Chooses the Simple LIfe

The New York Times is an easy target for criticism. Conservatives have long viewed it as a main proponent of "liberal media bias," and call it elitist. Liberals say Times reporters too readily accept GOP spin, leading to such things as an inability to critically evaluate Bush administration's run-up to war in Iraq. Media critics say the newspaper has spiraled downward for years, or at least since it went color.

So what will Times readers make of this front-page story: "Many Who Voted for 'Values' Still Like Their Television Sin"?

The article looks at the choices of viewers in a handful of "blue state" and "red state" markets -- Atlanta, Cleveland, New York, Orlando, Salt Lake City and Tulsa -- with regard to their viewership of shows ranked in the top 10 nationally. That would include shows the Times assumes wouldn't do well in red states, such as Desperate Housewives.

"So if it is true that the public's electoral choices are a cry for more morally driven programming, the network executives ask, why are so many people, even in the markets surrounding the Bush-bastions Atlanta and Salt Lake City, watching a sex-drenched television drama."

How simplistic is the Times?

To me, it seems obvious that the underlying theme of the story is that red-state television viewers/voters are a bunch of hypocrites. But Times reporter Bill Carter uses simplistic logic to reach that conclusion, although I'm sure the Rush Limbaughs of the world will jump all over it as an example of elitism.

Let's look at Carter's flawed logic:

-- Even the most popular shows, such as Desperate Housewives, garner no more than 20 million viewers. That's barely one in 14 Americans overall, and just one in 11 Americans over the age of 18.

So it's simplistic to assume that no one would watch Desperate Housewives in the most red of states? Perhaps, given the recent brouhaha over the airing of Saving Private Ryan and the election-year politics of Sinclair Broadcasting, Carter was surprised that the local ABC affiliates in Utah would even air the show.

Of course, even when only 9% of Utah likes a little sin on their television, that's enough to raise eyebrows among conservatives. Gary Schneeberger, senior manager of issues for Focus on the Family, an evangelical Protestant group quoted by the Times (and the lone "moral values" advocate in the story), said: "History has shown that even peopple who could be described as values voters are prone to sinful behavior and watching representations of sinful behavior. ... It's not shocking, but it is tragic."

-- Carter assumes that red states are 100% red. Salt Lake City -- about as red as you can get -- was just 73% pro-Bush in 2004. Most "red states" are actually 55-60% red, which by default means they are 40-45% blue. Do the math, and you'd find that there are enough blue voters in most markets to account for the popularity of Desperate Housewives or any other show.

But Carter pushes this theory on multiple network executives, who are all too eager to chime in. "We say one thing and do another," he quotes Kevin Reilly, the president of NBC Entertainment.

***

Desperate Housewives, of course, made the news last Monday, via a sexed-up opening for ABC's Monday Night Football featuring on of its stars dropping a towel and jumping, apparently naked, into the arms of Philadelphia Eagles player Terrell Owens. That spawned calls from the heartland -- not just from those speaking on behalf of children, but also from those that found it racially offensive -- and apologies from ABC and the NFL.

But let's put this into context: the callers represent a sliver of the television audience, and a fraction of the general population. How many people actually watched the NFL promo? Roughly one in 25 Americans, regardless of age.

***

Ultimately, the networks may try to find a hit with red-state programming, but unless such shows produce a ratings hit, don't expect more than a passing gesture. Why? Because the networks are in the business of making money. And if a show is popular -- whether it displays "moral values" or is representative of the nation's viewers -- the networks will not only keep it on the air, but they'll produce spin-offs and copycats, until demand drops off.

Religious-themed shows have had mixed success in the ratings. Touched by an Angel was a hit. Joan of Arcadia is not. The Pax Network, which Carter doesn't mention, barely registers a pulse in the ratings.

The networks have tried black-themed, Jewish-themed, multi-ethnic themed and more recently gay-themed shows (although less often than some viewers would like), but those shows have had mixed results in the ratings wars. For every Will & Grace that succeeds even as it showcases a minority community, there are a dozen ratings failures, such as City of Angels.

Such shows have to reach a broad audience. If they only appeal to a single ethnicity or religion, they will likely fail. As Carter points out; "(T)he highest-rated shows among blacks, like One on One and Girlfriends, could not crack the top 100 of network shows." It's the reason the only Jewish program available in the heavily Jewish New York metropolitan area is The Leon Charney Show, a local public television show that is harder to find than Indian videos or Chinese soap operas. If the nation was ready to make Leon Charney a star, the networks would give him a prime-time slot.

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