Commentary

2016 Was Bad Year for Prime-Time Network TV

Jeffrey M. McCall
By Jeffrey M. McCall | December 29, 2016 | 10:52 AM EST

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The year 2016 will go down as one in which Americans turned on the establishment and put a non-politician in the White House. The masses also rejected mainstream journalism, sending news industry credibility ratings to historic lows.

Even the American cultural bastion that is the National Football League faces declining interest. So, too, prime-time network television has sunk into irrelevance as viewers shun programming that fails to reflect any sense of Americana.

The big four networks’ ratings are all down double-digit percentages for the fall season. Premiere week for new shows in September was down 12 percent compared to last year, and nothing has happened since to reverse the decline. The top-rated prime-time show in November was CBS’ “Big Bang Theory.” The audience size would have made that program the 79th-ranked show 40 years ago, trailing such losers as “Mr. Belvedere.”

CBS’ top new offering, “Bull,” opened to moderate success this fall, but since has lost a fourth of its audience. Only “This is Us” on NBC seems to be holding its own among new shows.

Some analysts suggest the election season hurt prime-time viewership. Cable news channels did see viewership growth, but it is hard to conclude that political junkies would have been watching “Two Broke Girls” or “Lucifer” in place of CNN or FNC.

It is true that streaming video services have put a dent in network television, but that viewer migration is only partly because of greater options provided through new technology. Network executives should stop blaming outside forces and instead consider the declining quality of their own fare as the primary reason for audience melt.

The people producing television programs in Los Angeles and New York are disconnected from the conventional, regular people who live in the rest of the nation. It is increasingly difficult to get traditional people to watch bizarre, trashy and/or violent content that goes over just fine with the snooty, artiste elite in a network programming office. Those network snobs are basically programming shows based on their narrow world view, overlooking the values and interests of millions of people who need to be in the audience if network television is to survive.

Exhibit A for this distorted mindset is ABC’s “The Real O’Neal’s.” The program blatantly ridicules a Catholic family and Catholic practices. The program has attracted small audiences, but that hasn’t kept ABC from forging ahead with its cultural insults. An analysis by the Parents Television Council found the show has an instance of adult content every 43 seconds, more than half involving a 16-year-old character. Sensible Americans don’t consider crudeness and mockery of religion to be entertainment.

Broader analysis by the Parents Television Council found that prime-time network television is increasingly putting foul language dialogue into the mouths of children and teen characters. ABC and Fox are the biggest offenders. Kids today, of course, don’t talk like Opie did in the 1960s. But having kids talk dirty on television legitimizes the behavior for young viewers, despite warnings from parents to talk politely. It’s not so funny when your kid has a potty mouth.

Now comes word that ABC’s new comedy in development is called “Holy Sh*t.” The plot will focus on “a struggling church and their edgy new pastor.” Odds are this show will not look anything like a church in your community. That this show is even in “development” demonstrates what comedian and social observer Fred Allen said about television way back in the 1950s: “Television is a triumph of equipment over people, and the minds that control it are so small you could put them in the navel of a flea.” Allen would have to find a smaller insect today.

There are many reasons why the nation is polarized and confused. A contributing factor is that the nation has no common cultural experiences. Network television once provided some degree of cultural stability. No more.

Former FCC Chairman Newt Minow challenged the television industry in his 1961 “Vast Wasteland” speech, “You must help prepare a generation for great decisions.” Fifty-five years later, television has proven it is not up to the task of societal leadership. The only decisions you could make based on network television today would be which substance to abuse, which crime is most gory, and which foul words to use.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle. Contact him at jeffmccall@depauw.edu.