What the %^$#%* is going on with network TV?

The late George Carlin may have said it best during his infamous 1970s monologue, “seven words you can never say on television.”  This hilarious standup still has millions of people laughing as the master comedian pokes fun at seven words considered taboo for use on American television.

Much has changed since 1972.  An informal poll among network TV watchers says broadcasters these days are airing more explicit language than in years past.   While they haven’t yet tapped all of Carlin’s forbidden words, American network television is definitely getting edgier, especially as progressive subject matter becomes more of the status quo.

The observations are spot on.  Since 2006, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has stopped or cut down on enforcement because of ongoing litigation regarding its indecency authority.  Even though the FCC recently resumed “processing new cases where appropriate,” court actions continue to hamper the commission’s authority.

It’s no secret that the rise of cable and proliferation of online content continue to negatively impact television ratings.  In fact, a Nielsen study found that the average consumer spent about two percent less time watching traditional TV than the previous year during the first three months of 2012.  Factor in reality television and original programming from HBO, Showtime and FX, no wonder why the curse words are flying on network TV.

Content is always king, however.  While curse words used sparingly can sometimes accentuate a dramatic moment, good shows with interesting premises will win the day.  Heck, “M-A-S-H” received an unheard of 60+ rating for its final episode and not one curse word was uttered during the show’s 11-year run.   More than 125 million people watched that episode.   While more people watch the Super Bowl or Academy Awards, that’s still pretty %^$#%* amazing.

TV Cable News Is All Theater

Fox Newscaster Bill O'Reilly

Fox Newscaster Bill O'Reilly

It’s no surprise to anyone that CNN is the least watched station among cable networks during prime time. Most viewers today are tuning in to opinion based programs, such as Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor” and MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” where the news is slanted along political party lines.

The New York Times, along with scores of other news sources, reported today that three of CNN’s four programs airing between 7 and 11 p.m., finished last this month behind Fox, MSNBC and HLN (formerly Headline News). Even CNN’s coveted “Anderson Cooper 360” fell behind in the 10 p.m. slot for the first time, following Greta Van Susteren, Keith Olbermann and Nancy Grace, respectively.

CNN however still ranks first in campaign news, according to the Pew Research Center, with 25% of viewers naming the network as their main source of information, followed by Fox News Channel (21%) and MSNBC (10%).

CNN cites lack of news for the drop in prime time watchers, coupled by an ongoing feud between MSNBC and Fox, who are feeding off each other’s broadcasts.  Controversy and conflict are what make headlines.   Without them, news can be dull and boring.  Viewers are more likely to pay attention to a story filled with much hullabaloo, than a straight reporting of the facts.

Cable television has become more focused on its entertainment value, than its news reporting.  Today’s newscasts are riddled with commentary and judgment, and in some cases, the “news” actually becomes the “news.”  This is not saying cable networks perform poorly when reporting the news.  It’s quite the opposite; they are giving the viewing public what it wants: theater.  

Do the cable networks have a responsibility to report the news fairly and accurately?  They sure do.  But it’s not news that is being reported, it is opinion.  That’s something different.  Countless media outlets, blogs and podcasts, all are competing to report the news.  Cable opinion shows have carved a niche for themselves within this highly competitive, 24-hour news cycle. These shows not only appeal to a particular demographic, they offer a unique perspective, good, bad or indifferent.  This type of programming is reminiscent of the 1953 song from the MGM musical, The Band Wagon, “That’s Entertainment!”