It’s All Ratings, No Principles at Formerly High-Class CBS

Originally posted: September 18, 2010

The CBS network was once nicknamed The Tiffany Network in recognition of the high standards expected by its founder and longtime chairman, William Paley. That era is clearly in the Stone Age now as CBS careens down the cultural slope and demonstrates a brazen disregard for its role as a societal leader. CBS’ decision to broadcast a show this fall that boldly displays an expletive in the title demonstrates that the network will stoop to anything in a crass attempt to gather viewer eyeballs to sell to advertisers.

The new CBS show is called “$#*! My Dad Says.” It is based on the Twitter page of a writer named Justin Halpern, who lives with his senior citizen dad. The CBS title essentially bleeps the offending word from the real Twitter page heading, but the meaning is clear. The Twitter posts feature the observations of Halpern’s father, complete with heavy doses of profanity and indecent language. Thousands of Internet readers follow the irreverent musings, and CBS grabbed the concept for a sitcom.

CBS Vice President Martin Franks responded to concerns about the show in a published report, “You can rest assured the show and the promos will be fully within CBS standards.”

This statement is not comforting, however, given how little commitment CBS has recently shown to standards. This is the network that got in trouble with the Federal Communications Commission for showing a teen orgy scene on “Without a Trace.” This is the network that launched an f-bomb on “Big Brother.” This is the network that had lap dancing as the major theme on an episode of “Two and a Half Men.” Then there was the blatant exploitation of children in the reality show “Kid Nation.” CBS got in FCC trouble for that Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” a few years back but has accepted no responsibility and continues to fight court battles over the sanction. Putting an expletive in a show’s title tells us all we need to know about CBS’ standards.

A concern at CBS is that the average age of its audience is 55, highest among all broadcast networks. Advertisers generally like to target younger audiences, so CBS wants to lure the young Twitter audience to the network. It is hard to imagine, however, that one-liners on a Twitter page will translate well into a television show.

CBS is heavily promoting William Shatner as the show’s star. Most young people know him only as a spokesman for travel services and won’t flock to watch the 79-year-old utter bleeped outbursts, when they can read the unfiltered, real bleeps on their iPhones.The show’s co-star, Will Sasso, says in a video on the CBS website, “It’s a family comedy, which is something everybody can agree upon and everybody can relate to.” Based on scenes from the promotional video, that family appeal is questionable. In one scene, Ed (Shatner) tells a clerk at the motor vehicles office, “You seem like a very nice homosexual.” In another, Ed’s daughter-in-law shouts at him, saying, “My vagina is broken, Ed!”

Both of these family-friendly knee-slappers send the laugh track into overdrive. If these are the best lines that CBS can feature in its promotion, one can imagine what lowbrow humor fills the rest of the half-hour.CBS apologists dismiss concerns over the show’s title by saying that bad words exist in society and the show just reflects realism. While it is true that expletives float around in the real world, network television isn’t the tavern, locker room or frat house.

This is a major broadcast network using foul language in a lame attempt to be trendy. Such network decisions legitimize the coarsening of society for no sensible purpose and demonstrate insensitivity to corporate media’s role in providing cultural leadership.

The title of a flaky sitcom on CBS ultimately is not a tipping point in the television industry’s race to the bottom, and CBS is no worse than the other major networks, who all display their own lapses of corporate judgment. It is, however, more evidence of a big media mind-set where money is the only priority. It also demonstrates the warped media notion that going gross is the avenue to higher profits.In discussing this new program, CBS’ Franks said, “We are in the business of attracting an audience and attracting advertisers.” That can surely be done without putting an expletive in the title of a show. Someone in the CBS corporate boardroom needs to step up and provide a social conscience to the business of broadcasting.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.” Contact him at jeffmccall@depauw.edu.

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