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Running off the censors

Culture | A few good reasons that sitcom viewers are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans

Issue: "Clinton unites conservatives," Oct. 10, 1998

Democrats apparently watch more sitcoms than Republicans. According to a survey by Copernicus, a marketing consulting firm in Newton, Mass., more than half of those who watch two or more sitcoms on a regular basis support Democrats. Only one in five of TV comedy fans supports Republicans.

Conversely, only 39 percent of those stick-in-the-muds who are not hooked on sitcoms vote Democratic. The Republicans are presumably getting their laughs from CNN.

What, exactly, do these statistics mean? Hollywood will probably use this audience analysis as an excuse to skew even further left-conservatives aren't watching, they will probably reason, and liberalism is what our audiences want.

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Conservatives might jump to the conclusion that sitcoms cause liberalism. But surely the viewers were Democrats before they picked up the remote. Besides, the study is unfair to Democrats. It doesn't poll the number of Democrats who watch sitcoms; rather, it polls the shrinking number of people watching situation comedies and asks how many are Democrats. There is a big difference. There are lots of Democrats who hate TV.

What the survey does suggest is that the existing programs are attracting people with a certain mindset, and turning off others. More telling than political affiliation is the finding that heavy sitcom watchers "are more likely to seek new experiences and value creativity." Fully three-quarters of the couch zombies seek those new experiences and think of themselves as really creative.

If this is true, conservatives have nothing to worry about. If all these politically liberal creative experience-hounds can do is sit around and watch such creatively stimulating experiences as Dharma and Greg, Veronica's Closet, and Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, the culture war is over. Conservatives will have won, while the liberals are zonked out on TV, the true opiate of the people.

It is hardly worth paying a consulting firm to notice that sitcoms today are trashing traditional values of every stripe. Naturally, few will watch them but "progressives" who, far from being offended, enjoy that sort of thing.

And no matter how many sitcoms crash and burn in the ratings, this is the market the networks are pursuing. A Fox ad for two new offerings has the voice-over, "We ran the censors off, and, boy, does it show!"

Warren Berger of The New York Times (a substantial percentage of whose readers are also Democrats) wrote an article decrying these new downward trends. Up until recently, networks had substantial departments of standards and practices to ensure that programs kept within certain boundaries of taste. In the 1980s, Mr. Berger noted, these departments, which allowed the industry to supervise itself, were slashed.

Today, sex, bathroom humor, and vulgarity rule the air, practically unopposed. "When it comes to violating traditional canons of taste, it seems that anything goes on television right now," says Mark Crispin Miller, media professor at New York University. "In fact, tastelessness is the new orthodoxy."

How did this happen, and so quickly? Mr. Berger interviewed Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, who pointed out that the standards were first broken "by classy, well-written, intelligent shows like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere." One might add NYPD Blue, which first broke the nudity barrier.

Once these high-quality shows pioneered the breaking of the taboos, said Mr. Thompson, "that opened everything up for the sleazier shows to move in and take over."

Another factor was the rating system. "The people who wanted ratings to put the brakes on this new explosion of raunchy television saw just the opposite happen," said Mr. Thompson. "Anybody should have seen this coming. If you give producers the opportunity to use a TV-MA [mature audiences only] rating, it's an invitation to make TV-MA programs." (Readers may remember that WORLD predicted this would happen when the rating system was first proposed.)

A recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation has found that the so-called descriptive ratings are not even accurate in flagging objectionable content. Ninety-two percent of the shows with sex did not have an "S" with their rating; 91 percent with bad language did not have an "L"; and 83 percent of shows with suggestive dialogue went without a "D." One program, though rated TV-14, showed two stabbings, a shooting, a beating, an assault on a church by escaped cons, and the threatened rape of a nun, but did not bother to add a "V" for violence.

But the failure of the rating system to make TV a safe place for children-not to mention adults-is more basic. The New York Times article cited the example of the scatological, obscene kiddy cartoon South Park-which boasts a huge underaged following-as a program that would never have been aired without the rating system. Before the movies adopted a rating system, every filmmaker had to consider that his production would be seen by a wide audience of all ages. With the invention of the R rating, filmmakers could be, in the words of the rap song, "as nasty as they wanna be." This is exactly what is happening in television now.

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