Traditionally, most pay-TV customers subscribed because cable and satellite offered them programming they cannot get on free over-the-air TV. Today, this is still largely true – because what cable is offering is shows that are NOT obsessed with sex and violence.
Earlier this week, entertainment industry journal The Wrap released a list of the twenty most-watched programs on pay-TV. Though the list contained a wide diversity of shows, from A&E’s Duck Dynasty to Disney Channel’s Shake It Up, with two major exceptions, the shows listed had one thing in common: they contain little or no violent or sexual content.
The two obvious exceptions are AMC’s “zombie apocalypse” drama The Walking Dead, and HBO’s pseudo-medieval fantasy Game of Thrones. But those programs (and AMC’s talk show rehash The Talking Dead) are squarely aimed at the 18-34 male demographic, who cannot find their favored gruesome fantasy fare outside of theatrical movies. Thus, it is not surprising that these shows draws a hard core of loyal fans seeking violence.
But the rest of the shows on the list do not fit this mold. Many are innocuous reality shows like Duck Dynasty, Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and the like. Also well-represented are Disney Channel kid-targeted comedies like Jessie and Phineas and Ferb. (And how sad is it that parents must subscribe to cable or satellite, just to find programming safe for their pre-teens to watch? Once, such “safe” programming dominated the airwaves; today, parents have to shell out nearly $100 a month to get it.)
It is also notable that such shows as AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad, FX’s Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story, and Showtime’s Dexter are conspicuous by their absence. This is likely because shows that wallow in sex and graphic gore are admired largely by the tiny clique of insiders, critics, and sycophants who make up the entertainment industry, not normal Americans. These individuals talk, write, opine, and bloviate about their favorite extreme and graphic fare constantly. But most normal Americans want programming that reflects their interests – and those interests do not include meth dealers, rapist biker gangs, sadistic Catholic nuns, or psychotic serial killers.
Unfortunately, today’s broadcast networks are immersed in the same Hollywood-insider mentality, offering up endless serial killer dramas like The Following and Hannibal, or sex-slathered comedies like 2 Broke Girls and Two and a Half Men. (True, they also offer a few singing competitions like American Idol; and it is not a coincidence that such shows also top the charts of preferred broadcast network shows.) By contrast, the most popular shows on cable offer viewers fairly average people who do interesting activities – but whose lives are largely devoid of violence or graphic sex.
Many viewers are tired of being deluged by sleazy, raunchy sitcoms and disturbing graphic violence; yet they want to be entertained. As a result, they turn away from broadcast TV and look for quirkier but less graphic programming on cable. Cable’s top shows may not be particularly “edgy,” dramatic, or thrilling; but clearly, many people think they’re better than what the broadcast networks are offering.
The next time broadcasters claim that they need even more explicit gore, nudity, and foul language to be able to “compete with” cable, maybe they should take a look at what cable viewers are actually watching.