ESPN goes edgy
"All sports, all the time" was the formula ESPN followed to make it one of the most successful of all cable channels. Today, the company, now owned by Disney, has ESPN2, for more obscure sports and overflow from the flagship channel; ESPNEWS, offering 24-hour sports news; and ESPN Classic, showing sports reruns. Not to mention pay-for-view features, a magazine, and a restaurant chain.
Although sports have been very, very good to ESPN, the channel is now trying to emulate premium movie channels like HBO-with its Sopranos and Sex and the City-in developing "original programming" that is "edgy."
ESPN's hit series Playmakers is a soap opera about an NFL team that consists almost entirely of drug abusers. One episode showed a player visiting a little boy in the hospital, only to steal his morphine.
The network's made-for-TV movie about college basketball coach Bobby Knight left his obscenities unbleeped. ESPN also is reportedly planning a reality show about the tattooed transvestite former NBA nutcase Dennis Rodman. The network's talk shows have brought in comedians and controversial pundits-such as Rush Limbaugh-to push their commentary over the edge.
NFL officials-who insisted on Mr. Limbaugh's dismissal for politically incorrect comments about a black quarterback-are now speaking out against the damage ESPN is doing to their image, despite their $4.8 billion contract with the network.
Better things to do
More important than ratings to TV executives are demographics: Advertisers pay the most to pitch ads to young adults.
Mature adults are fixed in their ways, as to their buying habits, but slick commercials can mold and shape 18- to 30-year-olds into obedient consumers. This is why programs that appeal to older adults often get the ax, despite high ratings, while shows about young career women on the make and vulgar guy-humor sit-coms are considered hits, even though not that many people watch them.
But today, the latest Nielsen research has television executives in a state of panic. Young men in the prime, most sought-after demographic categories are not watching much TV.
As compared to last year, viewership among men ages 18 to 34 has dropped 12 percent. Moreover, viewership in the younger slice of this category has declined even more. The numbers for men between 18 and 24 have dropped 20 percent. In other words, one of out five men in their late teens and early 20s has at any given time stopped watching TV.
The TV executives cannot believe it. "Frankly what we're seeing strains credulity," Alan Wurtzel, the president of research for NBC, told The New York Times. Some are questioning the Nielsen research methods.
Maybe the young men are finally getting a life.
The special-effects company that specializes in manufacturing dead bodies is reportedly working overtime to meet the burgeoning demand from TV production companies for severed heads, amputated limbs, mutilated torsos, and autopsy models.
Whereas violence implies conflict and people fighting, the new way for TV to be scary is to show grisly images of dead bodies and parts of bodies.
The pioneer of corpse TV is CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the nation's top-rated show. CSI, along with its top-10 spin-off CSI: Miami, is about police and medical investigators solving crimes through forensic science. To their credit, the CSI shows are absorbing dramas, and the unsqueamish can actually learn some things about scientific evidence. But with its gruesome crime scenes, graphic autopsies, and sensationalistic topics-such as cannibalism and sado-masochistic sex-this most popular program in America has recently been branded by the Parents Television Council the least family-friendly show on TV.
Lesser programs have picked up the charnel-house motif as well, from the lame Dragnet remake to actual autopsies televised on HBO. Then there is the plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck, perhaps the goriest of them all, which depicts living people, in their never-ending pursuit of beauty, getting flayed and carved up.
Having desensitized its viewers to violence, TV is now desensitizing its viewers to death.