Does Not Compute

This Wired blogger argues (with backup from the human quote machine, Robert J. Thompson) that the problem with the broadcast networks is that “you may hear dirty words or see an exposed buttock online or on a cable program.” This strikes me as a case of letting the story’s premise dictate the conclusions even when there’s no real evidence for those conclusions. (Which is something every blogger does sometimes, of course; the temptation to make the argument you planned to make is sometimes too much to resist.)

The content-restrictions issue just doesn’t seem to matter as much now as it did a few years ago, for the simple reason that many of the most interesting cable shows are on basic-cable shows that don’t allow nudity or swearing. Battlestar Galactica, as one of the Wired commenters points out, has no content more explicit than the word “Frak,” while Matt Weiner keeps giving interviews about how, no, he doesn’t mind not being allowed to have characters swear out loud on Mad Men, or having to cut away when characters start having sex. Meanwhile HBO bombed with Tell Me You Love Me, which was marketed as the network’s attempt to raise the sex/nudity factor on TV. No, it didn’t bomb because of the sex/nudity, it bombed because it bombed; the point is there’s no clear co-relation between the success of cable shows and their freedom from content restrictions. As I’ve argued in the past, that may be a worrisome sign for HBO, that their freedom from censorship is no longer translating into the most interesting, cutting-edge shows winding up on their network.

Over on Broadcast, there’s still lots of post-Janet-Jackson restriction on content (it’ll be a while before we can freely see Homer Simpson’s butt the way we did throughout the ’90s), but whereas a few years ago the networks really seemed hampered by the huge amount of censorship, now it’s not quite as clear that they are. Partly because a lot of their cable competition comes from basic-cable shows that aren’t all that much freer in terms of content than the network shows; partly because (as I’ve said in an earlier post) many big Hollywood blockbusters have become so clean that they make broadcast TV drama look shocking by comparison. In any case, the censorship restrictions seem to matter less than the creative restrictions. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t like to see broadcast TV be less heavily censored; I would, but I doubt that would solve the current crisis.

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