Values, Voters and Voyeurism Collide in Entertainment


Cast of "Desperate Housewives." (ABC)
The aftermath of the 2004 presidential election has left a buzzword standing: values. Newspapers, magazines, radio talk show hosts and news channel pundits can't get away from the alleged role that values played in determining the next U.S. president.

Yet for all its talk about values, the Heartland still ponies up to watch the same TV shows and movies as its coastal counterparts.

 

Network executives told the New York Times' Bill Carter that no matter what people said about values and morals in exit polls, it's clear that audiences—in both red and blue states—like a little sin on television.

 

"In interviews, representatives of the four big broadcast networks as well as Hollywood production studios said the nightly television ratings bore little relation to the message apparently sent by a significant percentage of voters," wrote Carter in an article for the Times.

 

Carter's article went on to claim that people in liberal and conservative markets watch the same shows, so any talk about values and the presidential election will have no effect on what the networks program. The networks get all the information they need from TV ratings, and that dictates what gets the green light.

 

The smash hit this season is "Desperate Housewives" on ABC. The show features one housewife sleeping with a teenage gardener, another housewife addicted to children's medication and a few other juicy storylines. It ranks No. 2 nationally behind CBS' "C.S.I." That juggernaut, featuring a wealth of gore, has spawned multiple spin-offs.

 

There is some regional variation, however slight, in what tops the TV ratings, according to a Times graphic using statistics from Nielsen Media, which tracks TV ratings. Whereas "Housewives" is the No. 1 show in the New York and Los Angeles markets, it's No. 4 in Orlando and Salt Lake City. It's No. 3 in Tulsa, Okla.

 

"C.S.I." ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in Los Angeles and New York, respectively, but it was actually No. 1 in Orlando, Salt Lake and Tulsa.

 

This phenomenon is getting kicked around in the latest pages of Entertainment Weekly as well. In the article "America Is From Mars, Hollywood Is From Venus," Benjamin Svetkey tries to figure out if there is in fact a cultural divide—at least one that can be discerned from entertainment choices.

 

"Right after the election, I started getting all these pitches—'This is really going to be big in the red states,'" said an unnamed studio executive in the article. The executive went on to say, "But it was a joke. That's not how we make movies. We don't look at red states or blue states. We just don't think about it like that."

 

Hollywood may not care about red and blue, Svetkey said, but it does care about green—as in money.

 

"I wouldn't overreact to what some are saying is a conservative mandate for the culture," Hollywood executive Michael De Luca told Svetkey. "Why people go to the movies rarely lines up with why they go to the polls. Nixon won in '72 in a landslide, yet the films making money during that period couldn't have been more progressive."

 

As for television, Svetkey noted that the aforementioned top shows "seem to have little trouble crossing demographic divides."

 

Carter asked Steve McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment, if the networks might start lacing values-laden characters in their shows in a tip of the hat to all those voters who said values made them vote the way they did.

 

"I have not heard an idea of that kind,"' McPherson told Carter, "none whatsoever."

 

But Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment, had a different take, saying the networks didn't cater to the middle of the country as much as they should.

 

"One of the things we're playing with is having characters with strong religious beliefs included in some of our new shows," Reilly told Carter. "This would not be the premise of the show, but we could have a character who simply has this strong point of view."

 

Some shows, however, already deal with values, religion and spirituality. A few years after the successful "Touched By an Angel" exited CBS, the network picked up another God show: "Joan of Arcadia," about a high-school girl who's regularly visited by God in various guises.

 

Les Moonves, who heads up Viacom (which owns CBS), said the ratings speak for themselves.

 

If morals and values were what people really wanted to watch, Moonves told Carter, "I guess we'd be seeing 'Joan of Arcadia' doing better than 'C.S.I.'"

 

But it's not. Instead, "Desperate Housewives" is all the rage, with a handful of new fan sites and the cover of Newsweek to boot. The Newsweek article noted that "Housewives" became a top-five show faster than any new drama since "ER" in 1994.

 

Worth noting is that the show is about 40-something housewives—not lawyers or cops or castaways.

 

"This being Hollywood," Newsweek noted, "these are naturally the hottest housewives you've ever seen." Their hotness and what they do with it accounts for much of the show's controversy.

 

Gary Schneeberger, senior manager of issues for Focus on the Family, told the Times' Carter, "History has shown that even people who could be described as values voters are prone to sinful behavior and watching representations of sinful behavior."

 

To be fair, any good drama—of any rating or stripe—will depict "sinful behavior." Drama comes from conflict, and most conflicts involve errant action by someone. As screenwriting guru Richard Walter has said, no one wants to see a story about the village of the happy people. It's boring.

 

"The real question is how offended the audience is by sex and profanity," wrote Jonathan Alter in another Newsweek article about hypocrisy in the media. "For violence, apparently, anything goes," he then remarked in parentheses.

 

Alter argued that hypocrisy rules the day in "our current obsession with 'moral values.'" He pointed to the Disney-ABC empire and its "parading as a 'family entertainment' company while peddling casual sex, then 'apologizing' all the way to the bank."

 

He also blasted the National Football League for its recent tawdry pre-game show (starring Nicolette Sheridan from "Housewives") and then "preposterously claiming" it didn't know anything about it.

 

Lastly, he went after Fox for "shouting that liberals are hopelessly out of touch with moralistic America while featuring by far the bluest prime-time lineup, which does quite well in Red States, thank you."

 

Maybe the last word should belong to NBC Entertainment head Reilly.

 

"We say one thing and do another," he told the Times. "People compartmentalize about their lives and their entertainment choices."

 

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

 

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