Don’t dial back the content

What's good on the tube tonight? Chances are your TV guide won't offer any adequate answers, as there isn't much in the way of must-see TV these days.

What’s good on the tube tonight? Chances are your TV guide won’t offer any adequate answers, as there isn’t much in the way of must-see TV these days.

And judging by our mid-season report (see page 17), there aren’t many new marvels on the sked either. Everything new is something we’ve seen before – shows about gritty New York cops, courtroom dramas, That ’70s Show evolved into That ’80s Show. Meanwhile, existing programs, like the X-Files, which is finally throwing in the towel, have long overrun their course. Take Friends, which has lamely succumbed to regurgitating old story lines. Rachel and Joey as a love interest? C’mon now.

The networks have blamed Sept. 11 and its aftermath, which not only disturbed fall TV schedules but also ravaged budgets, for lackluster performances. And, of course, the advent of digital networks has added to the clutter and in the confusion of sked rejigging even the few bright stars (like Fox’s critically acclaimed 24) find it difficult to draw viewers. Hence networks stick to the safe, same-old formats, or take once-successful formulas and somehow spin them.

For instance, two new game shows called The Chair and The Chamber, from ABC and Fox, respectively, appear to be a surreal amalgamation of Fear Factor and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. In The Chair, contestants are hooked to a heart monitor, and are blasted by trivia questions from host John McEnroe (yes, that John McEnroe, who hopefully won’t be whipping any tennis rackets their way), while alligators menacingly dangle overhead. The Chamber, meanwhile, confines participants to a booth where they are tortured by sprays of icy water, blasts of cold air, and unbearably torrid temperatures, the latter occurring when they are hung upside down over raging flames.

Where do the networks come up with such fun ideas? Not from the writers, according to Sarah Timberman, president of programming for USA Studios, who recently informed information site BayArea.com that the creative process has been flipped on its head. Instead of adopting a carte blanche approach to TV scripts, writers try to give the networks what they want, which tends to be risk-averse programming. ‘That seems like a completely backward way to approach developing a show,’ she says in the article. ‘I think you just have to start with something that someone deeply cares about and that they want to spend years writing on for a series to ultimately succeed.’

Funnily enough, while much of TV is trapped in some sort of creative blackout, advertisers have been raising the stakes in order to lure drifting eyeballs back to the screen during commercial breaks. (see page 6)

Of course, there is a caveat here. The edgier your commercial gets, the more likely you are to piss someone off. And these days, consumers seem awfully sensitive. In Canada, for instance, a Ford Focus TV spot by Young & Rubicam – where a young woman kidnaps an attractive male store clerk by pushing him into the hatchback of her car- seemed to upset men’s rights organizations, and was pulled in January. OK, so maybe this would never work with genders reversed because, for women, it would tap into real and serious fears. But there wasn’t anything nefarious implied, and hey, haven’t we all fantasized about taking home a cute box boy before?

All joking aside, south of the border, similar reactions to two recent DaimlerChrysler spots have indicated that this political correctness thing has truly gone too far. A commercial for the Chrysler Concorde sedan, produced by PentaMark Worldwide in Troy, Mich., was revamped in November after grievances were filed about the original’s dialogue. With the goal of emphasizing the vehicle’s roomy backseat, it starred a mother who tells one daughter that her toddler sibling was named Concorde after the place she was conceived. In the new sanitized version, the mom says, ‘Concord, Mass.,’ instead, and the daughter no longer appears shocked. So much for paradise by the dashboard lights.

In January, a Chrysler Jeep ad faced similar trouble. In the spot, a pretend hunter rescues deer by tying them to his car, then driving to a no-hunting zone where he sets them free. He passes other hunters along the way, who are fooled into thinking he’s headed home with his trophy. It was withdrawn because, apparently, hunters don’t like to have shots taken at them.

While viewer reaction in this instance may have come as a surprise – the client’s wasn’t: the ad was yanked. After all, mass corporations don’t like to affront consumers. As David Strickland, SVP marketing at Zellers puts it: ‘The reality of life within a corporate environment is that you are taking personal risks when you’re pushing the envelope.’ Thus, the objective is an end product that ‘breaks through … [but] at the same time shouldn’t offend any of our consumers, which is something we never want to do.’

While the concern over job loss is valid, it’s time the corporate execs take a look around them. It’s 2002. Those few TV shows with deserved fanfare, like Sex and the City and The Sopranos, are willing to use sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to capture our attention, despite protests from certain groups. And it works immensely well for them. Perhaps it’s best to let the touchy conservative folk complain. But don’t dial back the content.

Lisa D’Innocenzo

News Editor