Lots of people say the s-word every day. Spill your coffee. PC crashes. Idiot roommate's watching the new Joe Millionaire and won't turn that ____ off. It's four letters for â€œpoo,â€? â€œcrap,â€? â€œfeces,â€? all of which can be said in proper company. Yet somehow, in corners of society â€” including America's major media â€” it remains a taboo worthy of public debate (we can't even write it here). When Comedy Central's South Park used the word unbleeped in an episode last year, it did so 162 times, keeping a tally in the corner of the screen. The episode finally concluded in the show's hyperbolic style that the word is, in fact, a cursed utterance whose overuse portends an apocalypse.
On South Park's heels, a wave of basic cable shows is emerging to reinvigorate the medium. It's no coincidence that writers and producers who have ignored rigid puritanical standards make up its vanguard. Curse words uttered by characters on television may not be more than cultural quibbling, but they do reflect TV finally adjusting to the sensibilities of the substantial portion of a population that (a) curses, and (b) doesn't live in mortal fear of going to Hell for it. More importantly, it is an indicator of a gradual awakening to the revolutionary notion that unshackling â€œcreativesâ€? to be creative will yield entertainment distinguished from the mediocre fare preferred by broadcasters. Influenced by the critical smashes HBO has scored in recent years, basic cable channels have begun nudging cable into a Silver Age by loosening the creative reins that have strangled the medium since TV's Golden Age.
The recent class of venturesome programs impresses: from ribald new Comedy Central entries such as Kid Notorious and Reno 911 to ESPN's pro football drama Playmakers to Spike TV's ultra-dry cartoon Gary the Rat and its Most Extreme Elimination Challenge to Cartoon Network's â€œAdult Swimâ€? block to a string of envelope-pushing shows on Fox cablet FX, led by the raw-nerved, corrupt-cop drama The Shield, which dumbfounded industry pundits by pulling in an Emmy last year. While widely disparate in presentation, genre, look and creative styles, the common denominators of most, if not all, of these are their eschewal of etiquette and a core audience of 18- to 34-year-old men.
That's a hot-button demographic as Nielsen tracks an 8 percent year-to-year drop â€” 750,000 MIAs â€” in that age and gender segment's prime-time viewership during the broadcast networks' season premiere period. Cable, meanwhile, showed 2 percent growth in the same group. That may be less than in past years, but it's significant juxtaposed to the network decline, especially in light of a 20 percent increase of video game play. Given the cohort's well-noted tendency to elude the kind of mass targeting advertisers covet, this new wave of edgier, smarter, better and, maybe not coincidentally, more vulgar programming seems to bode well.
â€œThose shows they do watch they're paying more attention to,â€? says Ray Giacopelli, VP of research and ad sales at Comedy Central. â€œThese guys are busy, they're going to grad school, they're working second shifts, you don't have this thing anymore where â€˜I'm just gonna plant my butt in front of the set for 40 hours a week 'cause I have nothing else to do.â€™ But when they are, it's in front of something that really connects with them. If everything's a clone of Friends or Raymond or CSI, they've seen that before, and you're not giving them a reason to watch TV.â€?
That's not to say that well-conceived and -executed programming cannot exist within the strictures of network television, nor that the old-school networks haven't occasionally green-lighted an offbeat notion and seen it pay off. Stephen Bochco's Hill Street Blues in the early '80s worked heroically to introduce cinematic urban storytelling within conventional protocols, and his NYPD Blue pushed the envelope still further. Often, too, groundbreakers have come from upstart networks whose meager initial ratings meant they had little to lose and much to gain from giving creators a wide berth.
Broadcast execs inevitably argue that they deal in numbers exponentially greater than cable and must make shows accordingly palatable to broad swaths of the population. Thus, they take their steps out of the Dark Ages gingerly, ever fearful of being called out by a usual group of conservative watchdogs.
The counterpoint, meanwhile, is always that art reflects the world, not vice versa. Further, controlling art to pacify society makes it less art than propaganda. It also makes it less genuine to the viewer, especially when widespread language usage seems deliberately excised in deference to some ancient and parochial taboo. To wit, ESPN first broached narrative entertainment with an original movie about Bobby Knight â€” Season on the Brink â€” and made the decision to cut its creators some slack based on the subject matter, a policy transferred successfully to Playmakers, which early in its run was averaging around a 1.95 rating (1.7 million viewers), nearly double what is considered a hit show on cable, and 2.2 rating among 18- to 34-year-olds, and even drawing a rating of 1.0 among women in that age group.
â€œTo make [Season on the Brink] credible and legitimate, you had to have the guy speaking the way he speaks,â€? says Ron Semaio, SVP of original entertainment at ESPN. â€œHaving Bobby Knight go, â€˜Golly gee, fellas,â€™ would've been ridiculous. It gets to authenticity, plausibility, and the same for Playmakers. If we're the network of sports and we're putting this out as what goes on in the high-pressure environment of these young men, for us to try to sugarcoat or vanilla-up the presentation, that would have a worse effect on our viewers, you'd turn off a lot of people. We're doing a soap opera for men, plain and simple, we have to be true to the world we're representing.â€?
Moreover, if something supposedly taboo is widely practiced or used, such as forbidden words, then they're not really taboo or forbidden anymore. As reported in these pages, 72 percent of American men and 55 percent of women say they curse in public, and 74 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds do it versus 48 percent of those 55-plus. What inhibits the entertainment biz from producing art that reflects our world, that broaches our sensibilities and doesn't insult our intellect?
The short answer, of course, is advertising. And as Giacopelli points out, even where agency media buyers recognized that more narrowcast cable channels deliver their target audience more efficiently, their clients often balk at venturing into â€œedgyâ€? programming fearing negative fallout. Thus, he commissioned an eye-opening block of research from Frank N. Magid Associates of Marion, Iowa, that proved how sponsorship of quality TV can pay off.
The study involved a control group of viewers (200) watching conventional, ad-interspersed programming, versus an experimental group (also 200) watching a tape of edgy or racy shows peppered with the same spots. Viewers of edgy programs showed unaided recall of 6 of 16 brands advertised, where the non-edgy group recalled only 2 of 16, while in aided recall, edgy viewers could name 10 advertised brands, versus 3 for the control group. The study reveals a viewer more engaged with the telecast, but, even more important, by Giacopelli's reckoning, the groups, asked to grade brand attributes on a scale of 1 to 10, showed no statistical difference in their appraisal based on what they watched. In fact, the edgy group showed a higher intent to purchase the advertised brands (9 of 16) versus the non-edgy (4 of 16).
This is not to suggest that quality programming must be profanity-laden or graphic, but, rather, that the less-censored environment yields more compelling storytelling in general. The lesson is a timeless one: a true creative vision realized will stand on its own merits. If you build it, in other words, they will come and, moreover, give a ____. The only people bitching will be the ones who don't get it anyway, because they'll go on thinking cops are always good guys, spoiled, narcissistic pro athletes are role models, independent thought arising from moral ambiguities is bad and that Lucy was funny. And, God bless 'em, they'll always have network TV â€” even if more and more of us don't.