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Chris Hicks: Major networks bungle competing with cable, new technology

The big five TV networks are reportedly worried about losing viewers. Not just to cable alternatives, which have been fragmenting the audience for decades now, but also to Internet and technological competition. A growing number of people are unplugging themselves from traditional TV-watching, which has the traditional networks in a panic.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission is reportedly considering relaxing its indecency standards and is asking for input from the public.

If you don’t see a correlation between these two recent news stories, think about how raunchy so-called “commercial television” has become in the past decade or two — and why.

We’re talking now about the “broadcast networks,” as they are called — ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW.

One of the reasons for an uptick in offensive material in nearly everything shown on network TV these days is a misguided effort to conform to what the networks see as the liberal license taken by cable channels in original programming that has gained traction among viewers — especially the coveted younger demographic (18-49).

The network thinking is, if we’re going to compete, we have to offer grittier, more-adult material, which is code for graphic, raunchier material.

They aren’t looking at the “premium channels,” of course — such as HBO, Showtime and Starz, whose scripted series include the foulest language, the most graphic violence, the most explicit sex and complete nudity, in various combinations. You can’t get those channels without paying extra because they aren’t supported by commercials, so if you subscribe you probably know what you’re in for.

The “basic-cable” channels — those transmitted through cable or satellite hookups, and which, like the networks, also have commercial interruptions — don’t go quite that far. But they get away with more than the five major networks, “pushing the envelope,” as they like to say. So non-cable network channels feel that they must do the same thing if they are to compete on a level playing field.

If, for example, you’re surfing through general cable channels and land on, say, AMC or FX, it’s possible you’ll see or hear something that was once considered R-rated. Those cable networks’ original series deliberately push the boundaries of violence, language, sex and nudity — and earn solid ratings numbers.

This is what the networks look to, so as they try to keep up, the ante is raised on network shows, such as the level of violence on “CSI” and “Law & Order: SVU”; the level of sex and/or nudity on “The Good Wife” and “Private Practice”; the sex, nudity and general raunchiness on display in 95 percent of all sitcoms, from “Two and a Half Men” to “2 Broke Girls” to “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23.” It’s especially noticeable on shows that didn’t start out that way but have exponentially become more vulgar, such as “The Big Bang Theory” and “Castle.”

But, of course, the real lesson the networks should be taking away from popular cable shows is that they are better written and more entertaining. Let’s face it, most of these shows use foul language and more graphic elements simply to gain attention, but they would probably earn the same audience numbers if those aspects were toned down.

“Justified,” “The Walking Dead,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” etc., are appreciated for their stories and characters, not their content. No one sits around with friends over lunch and says, “Dude, you should really check out ‘The Walking Dead’ because the zombies eating people is really gory.” Fans discuss a plot point or a character or some other interesting aspect of their favorite shows.

More often than not, foul language, sex and nudity, and graphic violence are incidental to, not the driving force behind, a boost in ratings.

Networks can ratchet up the raunch all they want, but it’s not going to give their programs any more respect or boost their viewership. Only better shows will do that.

And if the FCC does relax its standards for network programming, it will simply open the door for more graphic and less interesting material. Writers and show-runners will continue to lazily exploit content rather than improve the stories and characterizations and dialogue. Instead of fixing a broken situation, it will likely hammer more nails in the coffin.

And traditional TV will go the way of, well, newspapers.

Perhaps the networks should take note that some of last year’s most popular cable shows were not the most graphic. True, some graphic shows earned impressive numbers — but so did “Rizzoli & Isles” and “Royal Pains” and “Burn Notice” and “White Collar” and many others that are generally bereft of offensive content. In fact, they actually look a lot like the network shows once did.

And don’t even get me started on the oxymoron known as “reality shows.”