Death to the networks

The Fall TV season is debuting as I write this and from a distance it looks and sounds like the usual anxious three-legged race, with all of the networks somehow bound to each other by their rosters of copycat shows, an annual ritual that, at least until the cancellations begin, gives the illusion of themes and trends that only makes TV critics’ jobs easier.

We have two shows set in the implicitly sexist swinging ‘60s era of perpetual Emmy winner Mad Men, and another pair predicated on fairy tales being true. There are at least four shows centred on that most evergreen of primetime comic set-ups – the battle of the sexes and masculinity under siege – and another handful of melodramas about women trying to reboot their lives. Charlie’s Angels is being re-made, there’s are the usual bunch of Americanized versions of British shows, and humans are fighting dinosaurs in a series produced by Jurassic Park director Steven Spielberg. And, as usual, if something original has slipped through and – quite against the odds – manages to be a hit, we can look forward to it being roughly copied when the next crop of fall shows comes around.

The average home has more TVs than people in it, but primetime TV viewership has fallen drastically since its heyday in the ‘80s, slipping back to early ‘50s numbers – a decade that, even as it was ending, still saw only one household in 10 U.S. households with a TV in the living room. All this was in my mind when I read the final chapter of Ben Shapiro’s Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV, a rather excellent overview of the culture war on the small screen.

After a startling analysis of how governments – even supposedly “hostile” Republican ones – have colluded with the entertainment industry by giving it unprecedented tax and regulatory advantages, and another on the forthrightly liberal agenda of children’s television, Shapiro ends the book with a chapter on what needs to be done if TV is going to shed its leftist bias.

The result is somewhat disappointing. His main message is that conservatives have to get some skin in the game, and start infiltrating the entertainment industry on both the creative and business side. He warns us that we need to be stealthy – numbers might be dropping but bias is alive and well and the gatekeepers are keen to blacklist anyone who challenges the political and social orthodoxy. Even if you make it through undetected, Shapiro cautions conservative trailblazers to keep their politics to themselves, even while co-workers and employers express their stridently. Turn the other cheek, in other words.

They may hate us, he says, but even they agree that we’re good with money. “What better way to channel that entrepreneurial energy than into the most powerful mass medium in history,” Shapiro implores. The idealism in this message is palpable, and while I have nothing but pity for conservative creative types – they’d might as well take a shot at predominantly liberal venues like TV, since every other artistic outlet is just as, if not more, rife with hostile bias – I can’t imagine why anyone with business talent and conservative politics, eyeing an industry primed to label them an enemy of progress and scourge of mankind, might not shudder and turn their talents to some kinder place, like international banking or real estate.

In any case, Shapiro’s advice is mostly aimed at that tiny percentage of people with the talent and skills the TV industry values, while ignoring the vast majority of us who make it a success – the audience. For viewers, it’s worth noting the technological changes that are overwhelming the TV business, and which almost everyone Shapiro interviews regard as overwhelming and inevitable: “I question whether in five years the networks (will exist),” says Fred Silverman, president at both ABC and NBC during their ‘70s heyday.

For conservative viewers, it’s the greatest opportunity we’ve had in two generations, since liberal bias triumphed on network television and advertisers were persuaded that debt-ridden young urbanites, not comfortable older viewers, were the most desirable demographic. With streaming and downloading services like Netflix and iTunes, viewers can cherry pick the shows they want to watch and have their preferences recorded accurately, instead of sifting through the churning pipeline of broadcast television while unreliable ratings meters like Nielsen try to discern trends.

Like any business, the entertainment industry responds to punishment and reward, and if they realize that disdain for the values of their viewers results in a diminished audience, there might be an incentive to produce one less cynical, jeering comedy or stridently liberal legal procedural in favour of something made by those conservative infiltrators Shapiro exhorts to find a place behind enemy lines. What this means practically is cutting off your cable and watching less television, with an eye to quality over quantity, and taking our place in the broad coalition of social forces and consumer trends that will, inevitably, kill network television.

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