Time to Take Hollywood to the Woodshed, by Brian Bird

Brian Bird first posted this piece on his blog three weeks ago and seemed to have stirred up a few hornets. It resulted in several national radio interviews and he was even invited to take his opinions on this topic to Washington, D.C., where he met with a dozen members of Congress and their staffs to search for some solutions. It also ‘outed’ him as a sort of industry whistleblower. He asked if we would repost his original comments here.

Nobody asks us what we want to watch on TV. A tiny cabal of people in Hollywood just decide what they are going to offer us and hope we get addicted.

by Brian Bird • TV Writer-Producer

“None of the four major networks were nominated in the [Emmy] drama category. The Academy is sending a pretty clear message and that message is… Show us your boobs.” -Jimmy Kimmel
I woke up this morning to find this Hollywood Reporter article in my in-box.  I thought I had stumbled onto a porn site.  I actually won’t even repeat the headline. You can read it for yourself.  But suffice to say, it’s time to take my own industry to the woodshed.

Apparently some of the broadcast TV networks and writer-producers have so much HBO envy that there are no envelopes they aren’t willing to push anymore. At Emmy time, the pay-cable networks seem take home most of the hardware for their public taste-challenging content. Remember, HBO’s branding slogan: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Well, for a lot of the executives, buyers and content creators on broadcast TV, the way to cure your Envy-Green is go to Blue.

“This season, broadcast TV isn’t for the prudish. Nearly two months into the fall, it’s clear that explicit jokes and boundary-pushing storylines are changing the definition of what sexual content is acceptable in prime­time.”

– Tim Winter, President, Parents Television Council

This is happening on the networks (CBS, NBC, Disney-owed ABC, and FOX) that people use to receive for free on their rabbit ears over the public airwaves, the same networks that used to be regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. But now, because we pay a few cents or dollars for their feeds on our cable or satellite bills every month, they are now considered Pay-TV. Hence, virtually no FCC oversight. That’s the marketplace at work. These very same broadcasters used to have robust “Standards and Practices” departments, sort of public interest firewalls which would encourage restraint and discretion on the parts of the writers, producers and production companies so as not to ambush family sensibilities. Apparently, these S & P execs, right along with the feeble FCC, have now gone AWOL.

The Frog in the Beaker 

Okay, call me a prude. I’ve worked on family-themed films and TV shows for most of my career, including such series as Touched By An Angel, Step By Step and Evening Shade, and Michael Landon Jr. and I have a family-friendly series called When Calls the Heart currently in production of Season 2. I’ll wear the prude tag like a badge of honor because what we’re producing is not vanilla or “soft” as some in the industry might call it. It’s actually radical, revolutionary, counter-programming because very few others are actually producing content like this these days. Not that many years ago, all of the big networks competed with each other to put family-themed programming on TV every day of the week, but that’s not the case anymore. In fact, most people I know can’t name 10 shows on TV any longer that they can actually, safely watch with their families.

“I have no intention of changing what’s happening on Scandal… I look forward to being censored.” -Shondra Rhimes, Executive Producer

Remember the high school biology experiment where you put a frog in a beaker of room temperature water and then slowly heat up the brew over a Bunsen burner? The frog splashes about as it acclimates to the rising temperature.

Until it boils to death.

As the networks seem to be chasing pay-cable over the cliff into dark, depraved and perverse, could it be that we’re all boiling to death and we don’t even realize it?

The Big Cop Out 

I’ve had conversations with some of my peers who work on what used to be called “10 o’clock programming” but which now pretty much rules the airwaves at all times of the day and night. They say they are just reflecting culture when they drop language bombs or feature ever-increasing sexual explicitness in their programs.

In my opinion, that’s horse-(language bomb) and an extraordinary cop out. They are not just reflecting culture; they are shaping it and leading it… right over that cliff. Media occasionally reflects, but it mostly teaches. And if that’s not so, how come advertisers spend 20 bazillion dollars a year to try to teach us to buy their products? If media doesn’t teach, persuade, shape or influence our behavior, that money would never be spent. Media creates culture.

Nobody asks us what we want to watch on TV. A tiny cabal of people in Hollywood just decide what they are going to offer us and hope we get addicted. The only measurement is how many eyeballs they can attract and hold onto week after week. It’s completely utilitarian thinking. The bottom line is money, and people’s values be damned. The question of whether or not it is good for culture is no longer a concern because the audience gets to decide what it likes or doesn’t like. What’s the difference between that and handing out crack cocaine on a street corner and then saying it’s up to us to be responsible crack-users?

Don’t get me wrong.  I have watched and enjoyed many programs that I would never purposely invite my kids to watch. Some of the story telling, production values and insights into the human condition are phenomenal and worthy of viewing.

But where is the balance? With wall-to-wall adult-oriented programming and nothing for families, I fear for the future of our culture. I fear for my kids and the next generation, which is facing an unprecedented tsunami of desensitizing, over-sexualized, violent content.

What can we do about it? You can watch my show, When Calls the Heart, and if you enjoy it, let the powers that be know you want more family programming.

And if nothing else, at least take my Family TV Challenge: Name 10 current “scripted” shows on TV you can watch with your entire family (real estate, gardening and cooking shows don’t count). If you can name 10, them I’ll concede I’m just tilting at windmills. But if you can’t, I urge you to share your strong feelings with the switchboards at the networks and the advertisers who are spending a great deal money trying to lure your eyeballs.

The water is heating up all around us.

See also

Opening Doors for Others: An Interview with Writer-Producer & Mentor Brian Bird

Learning from the Best (Brian Bird): An Interview with TV and Screenwriter, Chris Easterly

Brian Bird is Executive Producer of When Calls the Heart (Hallmark Channel) and a prolific writer-producer whose TV credits include more than 250 episodes of Touched By an Angel, Evening ShadeStep by Step, and The Family Man, as well as numerous TV and feature films, including Tri-Star’s Not Easily Broken