Two months into the new television season, and the axes are swinging. The same execs who heaped ebullient praise on their new lineups in late August now are being brutally honest:
"Some of the programming just sucked," NBC's entertainment chief Jeff Zucker said.
Interesting choice of words, Mr. Zucker.
NBC's tentpole this season was "Coupling," an Americanized version of a popular British sitcom. The Peacock network pitched it as the natural successor to "Friends," which is now it its last season for the third time. But while the gang on "Friends" had their fair share of coupling going on amongst them, the characters on "Coupling" were supposed to put the "sex" in "sextet." Drop the innuendo and get down to it.
"Coupling" sucked like a hooker with a hare-lip.
The UK version has lasted four seasons. The US edition lasted four episodes. That's not a record by a longshot -- some series have never even made it to the airwaves -- but to my recollection, no show which has been billed as the highlight of the network's new line-up had ever died so quickly.
That is, until Fox canceled "Skin" two days later...after only three episodes.
If you're not a big baseball fan, and so didn't watch the playoffs or World Series, you might not have been subjected to the incessant promotions for "Skin." Produced by Jerry "I'm Not Compensating For Anything By Blowing Stuff Up In All My Films" Bruckheimer, "Skin" was yet another take on Romeo and Juliet. In this case, the star-crossed lovers are the daughter of a porn mogul and the son of a district attorney. The two dads spent each episode making accusations about who's got his chocolate in the other's peanut butter while the kids frolicked on the beach singing "I Think We're Alone Now."
Essentially it was Traffic for the small screen, with porn instead of drugs, and sanitized for our protection. The title was only a tease, like one of those risque greeting cards that asks if you want to see a wet pussy and when you open it up, there's a cat that's had a bucket of water dumped on it.
These shows aren't the only victims of poor ratings this fall. In fact, ABC is the only network which has yet to cancel a new show (they've got the whole dead guy thing propping them up for now). But "Coupling" and "Skin" stand out because of the initial hype and racy content. Doesn't sex sell anymore? Despite "Fear Factor - Playmate Edition," are we exchanging prurience for prudence?
Not to sound all hedgey, but...yes and no.
We're polarized when it comes to our appetite for sex-laced entertainment: those who want some and those who don't. And while that's always been the case to some degree, based on individual morality, it's become more distinct due to accessibility.
Cable TV got the ball rolling, piping softcore adult movies into subscribers' living rooms on Cinemax or Showtime. Now it was no longer necessary to sneak into an X-rated movie theater; people who wanted to see a skin flick could, in the privacy of their own home. Once VCRs (and later, DVD players) became affordable, people could rent or buy porn to take home. Now another group of people could indulge their interests, for just a couple of bucks and a nervous glance at the doorway to the back room at the local video hut.
Then, as with so many things, along came the Internet, and everything changed. Now, often for less than the cost of a DVD rental, the turgid masses can get a month's subscription to any one of a seemingly innumerable selection of adult websites. Once there, why waste time watching or downloading movies, when you can interact 24/7 with live sex performers who will do whatever you ask of them?
Against something like that how can the predictably-scripted, always-clothed cast of "Coupling" compete?
When video rental erupted years ago, Showtime trotted out "Red Shoe Diaries" and HBO produced "Sex and the City" and "Real Sex" because they were desperate to hold on to subscribers who suddenly had a better, cheaper option than paying $20 a month for Emmanuelle IV and getting mostly Karate Kid III.
The broadcast networks are doing the same scramble, but they're cock-blocked by the FCC and a nation of viewers who either have already switched to DVDs and the Internet for their erotic entertainment, or who don't want any part of that smut. Why do you think CBS has been doing so well in recent years with wholesome fare like "Touched by an Angel," or "Joan of Arcadia"? For the same reason once-dinky cable stations like TLC can have a breakthrough hit about...interior decorating?!
In short: the viewers who wanted sexy shows are gone. The networks are not going to get them back.
The most successful network shows in recent years haven't been sexy, or even particularly violent. We had the game show craze, we had the reality craze, and now we're apparently in the makeover craze. There are no riveting dramas or must-see sitcoms, not the way there used to be. The few remaining shows with a modicum of sexual tension -- "Smallville," "The O.C." -- are geared at hormone-addled teens who get horny looking at linoleum.
The readily titillated have fled to other media. ABC and CBS understand already; NBC and Fox are figuring it out fast: those who remain want it banal, not anal.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
11.21.03 @ 7:41a
I think the problem with the shows is not only that people are less interested in sex but also that the shows sabotage themselves before they even begin. When I watched the commercials for "Skin" I thought it looked bad, not because of the sex, but because of the narrowness of the situation. How many different episodes/events can you really get out of the Romeo & Juliet plot? The most successful shows out there are the ones that present a situation or a setting ("Alias", "ER") and then develop plots from it, and that is why they can keep going when shows like "Skin" fall flat on their faces.
11.21.03 @ 8:16a
are geared at hormone-addled teens who get horny looking at linoleum.
Thank you, Xander.
I think you've hit it, though. Yeah, sex sells. Sex sells very well -- but it sells itself so well in the video store and online that it's not going to sell your sitcom at 7:30 PM where there sure as hell isn't going to be any sex.
As far as I'm concerned, television is falling into the same trap the music industry has been falling into for years. There's no talent anymore -- they churn stuff out built around formulas invented from focus groups. You have Britney Spears, you have 'Skin.' You have (had?) the Backstreet Boys, you have 'Coupling.'
Hopefully, people are getting tired of it all and will only respond to actual real talent and/or entertainment soon so we can stop putting up with the crap.
11.21.03 @ 8:27a
I suppose show business has always been a business, but it would be nice to put a little show in it every now and then. Show as in art and artistry. Show as in intelligence. Show as in subtlty. Show as in that freakin' took my breath away.
11.21.03 @ 9:42a
We gather around the TV, it is still passive group entertainment for most of us. And, frankly, I don't need talk about blowjobs while I'm watching TV at my folks house.
Sex, especially porn, is a singular affair, so to speak. Not meant for ratings.
11.21.03 @ 10:11a
I think you hit the nail on the head, Russ -- if you want it, you want more of it, and network can't do that, so network should do other things.
Like, y'know, Alias.
The Jonesy-Mrs. Cooch sex scene in the shower on "Carnivale" last Sunday was sizzling hot. And they never could've done it on, say, "Coupling."
My question is this: considering the pay channels can do nudity whenever they want, why do the S&tC girls still have sex with their bras on at least half the time?
11.21.03 @ 10:26a
Victoria's Secret pays them?
11.21.03 @ 10:29a
Watching "Carnivale" are ya? What do you think?
That scene is a fine example of hot lust with inevitable complications, and thus, makes sex interesting. And even though you can't help but see Mrs. Cooch's breasts, they are not the reason to pay attention.
As you said Russ, when every single other thing is sensationalized with sex, to watch a show like "Coupling" seems almost quaint. And as with most of the entertainment we rip off from the Brits, it was a weak clone.
"Sex in the City" proved that sex+story is always intriguing, because it's just another element of humanity.
11.21.03 @ 10:39a
Russ, do you think that people really want banal tv? They could just as easily want something interesting and fun that doesn't revolve solely around sex. The Simpsons isn't banal, but it isn't overly sexualized either, and it's still really popular.
11.21.03 @ 10:44a
Jael: While the reality of S&tC probably is "contract stipulations," it does seem ironic that on a show that's supposed to be all about sex, on a cable station that's supposed to bring you what the networks can't, that the show is as demure as it is.
The other reality is the utter lack of reality regarding sex. The networks don't even attempt it. But cable (and most feature films, for that matter) sanitizes it in its own peculiar way. Sex can be enticing, erotic, sensual -- but it is seldom graceful or clean. Aesthetically, what director is going to want to break into his carefully orchestrated story with two or three minutes of sticky naked rutting? Sex for mass consumption must be languid and elegant and slow-mo. Failing that, you neuter the scene and just show the couple after-the-fact, unmussed and strategically clutching bedsheets.
11.21.03 @ 10:54a
Tracey -- loving Carnivale. I'd been keeping up through recaps, but seeing it live is just insanely better. Such great acting all around. I really want to wipe Nick Stahl down with a washcloth, though.
As I see it, "Coupling" existed for no reason other than to talk about sex. And supposedly, be funny. But where sex is included as part of a plotline -- in "Carnivale" for sure, where it's just thrown in with the soup of religion and mysteries and close quarters and ghosts and whatnot -- it can be done much better. There are no neon signs going off with arrows pointing toward the naughty bits. It's just part of the overall scenery.
And I like it that way.
11.21.03 @ 10:57a
Sarah: Yep, I do. I'm not saying there aren't exceptions, but if you look at the bigger picture, you'll see that the network selections are a rather homogenized lot. The Simpsons is 14 years old, and has carved out a cultural niche. Most shows don't have that kind of stamina, nor are they as groundbreaking. Look at it this way: The Simpsons made it possible for Futurama, King of the Hill and Family Guy to find a home in primetime as well. Only KotH survives, and if you discount the fact that it's animated, it's just another sitcom about family life.
Meanwhile, you have NBC pounding out Law and Order clones. Not to be one-upped, CBS is already discussing a third version of CSI. JAG got cloned into Navy NCIS. Game shows, reality shows, newsmagazines... it's habitual imitation over innovation, give 'em what they want again and again.
So when something like Skin or Coupling comes along, teasing at being something new -- or at least pushing the envelope -- it's hilarious to see it fail and realize it was nothing new after all.
11.21.03 @ 2:51p
More proof that even cable has had its balls snipped:
Disney Chairman Michael Eisner indicated on Thursday that ESPN's Playmakers, although a hit for the cable network, would not be returning for another season. The series had been roundly criticized by executives of the National Football League for portraying some players as drug and wife abusers. During a conference call to discuss Disney's fourth-quarter earnings report, Eisner said that with Playmakers, "ESPN moved into a new area with the kind of noise and the kind of quality necessary" to attract an audience, which he said, included. However, he added, the cable sports network would probably now move on to produce another drama that "won't be as controversial."
The couple of times I caught the show, I was unimpressed. Frankly, ESPN ought to stick to nonfiction. And because of the tremendous pressure that the NFL brought to bear, I can understand why ESPN is knuckling under.
But the truth is, there are NFL players who use drugs and abuse their wives (or other women, at least). Playmakers only enflamed controversy because it dared to expose some realities.
And now something innocuous will take its place.
11.21.03 @ 6:08p
Karate Kid III is HILARIOUS!
Nice Buffy reference, Russ. And don't hack on The O.C. Something needed to fill the 90210 hole. And it fills it well.
11.23.03 @ 7:52p
Right now, 60 Minutes is rehashing this column. Filching bastards.
11.24.03 @ 10:20a
HA! Gotta love it when the mainstream falls in after the fact.