Commentary by Randall Rothenberg


Why Cable TV Continues to Erode the Broadcasters' Franchise

By Published on .

Everyone knows there's great pornography on cable TV. My favorite isn't on the Spice Network, Playboy TV or even Cinemax After Dark. It's on HGTV.

For hours each day, Home & Garden Television appeals to my most prurient fantasies. That granite counter top -- so sensuous. Those foundation plantings -- how erotic. My goodness, you look so different, living room sofa, when you take your slipcover off!

Traffics in fantasy
Like the best porn, HGTV traffics in fantasy. Should we buy the house near the beach or the mansion in the woods? It allows viewers to daydream about multiple partners (this wallpaper and that credenza). In this depressed and distressed new millennium, it joyfully puts the fetish back into commodity fetishism.

The network's most arousing

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programming even features that mainstay of adult cinema: overindulgence. Consider Dream House. The documentary series narrates the tales of lustful obsessives as they set about constructing their ultimate residence. In the current installment, Richard and Tanya Landry have decided to build their fantasy home: four acres, three garages, high on a Maryland hill -- out of concrete, an unusual choice for a residential building. Even more curious, Richard, a wealthy professional, has opted to act as his own general contractor. Sure enough, delays set in, the concrete cracks, the basement leaks, their child, unborn at the series' start, begins to teethe. Rarely does TV provide viewers such catharsis.

It's an established fact that pornography is a driver of, you'll excuse the phrase, new-media penetration. VCRs and the Internet both grew by making sex available in the privacy of your domicile. It's a fair bet this new erotica -- back in the '80s we even called it "yuppie porn" -- might impel further changes in the way homebodies consume media.

Making viewer inroads
Cable's inroads against broadcast TV are well known. But the broadcast networks' robust upfront market last spring obscured the extent to which cable is continuing to erode the conventional franchises. In the summer of 2001, advertising-supported cable channels drew 49% of the prime-time audience, to the broadcast networks' 41%. This summer, cable increased its share to 53% while the broadcasters fell to 37%, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Certainly, the new luxury networks are playing more than a bit part. HGTV and its sibling, E.W. Scripps Co.'s Food Network, are now together drawing some 1 million prime-time viewers each night, up 35% over the year earlier, Newsweek reports.

Magazines, take note
This ought to interest executives outside of TV -- leaders in the magazine industry, for example. HGTV is taking the fundamentals of Aristotelian drama and applying them to the staples of shelter books.

It's been said there are only two dramatic themes -- "Man goes on a trip" and "Stranger comes into town." Dream House is nothing if it's not about a voyage; the first chapter of the Landry saga is even titled, "Drawn to the Journey." One of my other network favorites, Designing for the Sexes, features an alien -- a jovial British designer named Michael Payne -- descending on a feuding couple's home and giving it an interior makeover.

Highlight the advertiser
What niche nets are showing is that their medium is creatively expandable, to the point where they encroach on other media. They are able to highlight lives and lifestyles -- and, not incidentally, the roles played by advertisers' products -- in luscious, lascivious action.

Take it from me. I just put in a patio. Oooh, those bricks.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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