The purpose of this memo is to discuss the impact that cable television has had on the broadcast networks, in particular, how cable has been able to outperform the networks in regards to comedy programming.
In the mid-80’s and throughout the 90’s, cable channels grew by ten-fold. Many channels were created for a specific audience. Scifi Channel, now SyFy, for science fiction viewers, the History Channel for history enthusiasts, and Ha! and Comedy Central, both geared toward comedy programming. Ha! and Comedy Central merged in the late 90’s. Comedy Central as well as MTV and other cable channels have taken audiences away from the big three broadcast networks as far as comedy is concerned.
The United States Governments’ rules of decency under the umbrellas of the Federal Commissions Commission (FCC) have given cable television an unintended edge in their comedy programming. The FCC since the 1970’s has had strict guidelines on what is considered decent to air on the public airways. Since all broadcast companies are considered licensed to television local stations their TV signals, they are under the FCC scrutiny. If a person or the government sees a program, words or anything visual to be offensive, the government under the FCC will investigate. In doing so, that channel which airs the programming, can be fined or they can have their licenses revoke. So if the CBS network airs an episode of the Big Bang Theory in which something indecent it deemed to have been said, each of the 216 national affiliates, stations which broadcast CBS’s television programming, each of those individual stations can be fined or have their license revoke. The same is true with NBC or ABC.
Times have changed since the FCC came up with the rules of what is decent and tolerated. For instance, the word damn what considered to be scar religious and offensive to say on the air is not OK as a norm to use in certain context. While other words such as bitch, as early as the mid-1980’s was heard in the ABC series Dynasty. Few complaints were heard from the network broadcasting that word. So every few years, certainly by each decade since the 1970’s, networks in their programming of entertainment have pushed the envelope of the strict FCC guidelines. They then would see how the public took the words/scenes and from there each of them, as well as the social changes norms in society, helped to create a more liberal speech where networks are less afraid of certain words, scenes and situations.
Cable television does not fall under the FCC guidelines. Since they are not shown over the airways, they are not considered owned by the public. Therefore, they do not have any guidelines under the FCC. So cable television can send content to viewers unencumbered by rules and regulations. Even though networks such as ABC, NBC and CBS are now funnel through cable providers, they are all considered to be still broadcast companies because you don’t need cable to pick up their signal if you chose to do so without using cable.
Networks such as MTV, Comedy Central and Showtime and HBO have been able to draw viewers because they are able to uses language and scenes without consideration of the FCC. Cable television is now consistently out-performing the big three networks. Cables’ show are edgy, using more real life language and situations while the networks take the language and situation is reality TV which are also heavily edited. While network TV shows lack the ability to use certain language and situations in their scripted shows.
I am proposing that networks have two divisions, one broadcast and one cable. As each TV show is being filmed, they should produce two versions. A version that is G or PG 13 which is acceptable to the larger audience under the FCC guidelines, and an unedited rated PG 17 version where language and situations are less edgy. The latter would be shown on the networks cable channels only. So, the networks can program their cable network channels with different shows all together.