Channel Slumming and Why Vassar Girls Shunned The Procedurals

A few days ago Variety’s John Dempsey reported increasing anxiety among the cable channels who rely heavily on off-net procedurals.

"Without a Trace failed to score with mass audiences," said Dempsey.  Since the Without a Trace launch a year ago in the 7p slot on TNT, the series has averaged only 1.73 million viewers.  60% of  the show’s viewers are over the age of 50.  Cold Case has also dropped by close to a third in total viewers and in key demos.

Variety also reported last year that TNT was nervous about a Law and Order ratings slump. 

Says Dempsey:  "The industry is citing the declining fortunes of off-network procedurals as the reason cable networks are reluctant to pony up for off-net series including Criminal Minds, Bones, Numbers and Boston Legal."

One of the problems not addressed in Dempsey’s article:  the excessive, gratuitous violence against women.  During  the Summer 2005 Television Critics Association press tour, critics cornered CBS’ Criminal Minds producers for featuring a caged woman and an "anger excitation rapist."  Not long after,  USA Today ran a story in which viewers complained about CSI’s kinky subject matter.

(Caveat:  it’s too bad that CBS’ Numbers’ reputation is stained by association.  Numbers is relegated to the Friday night graveyard, so the series is underexposed and there might be quite a lot of viewers still to be tapped.  The premise is unique, the character development is appealing and the series doesn’t engage in the same level of graphic violence.)

After listening to my daughter’s gen-y friends rant that CSI and other procedurals had jumped the shark, I finally invested some serious time in screening those shows.  (Procedurals are just not my thing, primarily because the skeins skimp on character development, and I don’t watch many of them on a regular basis.)

I committed to screening a full week’s worth of broadcast net procedurals.  I lasted exactly two hours before coming this close to throwing a spike heel into my plasma screen.  It was a relief to shift back to the cable stratosphere.  The procedurals at the lower end of the dial were so sleazy that a new term was required: channel slumming.

It wasn’t the violence that was upsetting, not exactly.  It was the context and the objectification of the victims, in many cases women.  Showtime’s Dexter, for instance, is one of my favorite series.  The premise is entirely unique.  The violence, while difficult initially (it toned down a bit after the pilot), never felt gratuitous since Dexter’s aberrant behavior is integral to the plot and character development.

But I was turned off by what I saw on the broadcast nets.  Maybe audiences are hardened but torture porn or splatter films are off my list and what I was seeing on broadcast nets skirted the edge. 

CBS is definitely the worst offender.  There is almost no rationale for the violence  — other than to titillate the audience in the cheapest way.  CSI NY was the most annoying.  The show left the distinct impression that a bunch of giggling misogynist writers, suffering greatly from delayed adolescence, were sitting at a conference table trying to out-gross each other.

But as CBS turned up the sensationalist heat, they could very well have sacrificed some of their life-blood - the younger, upwardly mobile, female viewer.  The Yumfies?  (In fairness, CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler is shaking up the sked this fall.)

The young women I interviewed a few months ago - all recent Vassar graduates - were infuriated by the disdain displayed by the networks.  Formerly big fans of procedurals, they’ve stopped watching.  Nina F. was at one time an L&O and CSI enthusiast.  “I used to really like CSI and Law and Order.  I thought CSI especially was a great idea for a show, and had engaging actors and good pacing, " said Nina, "I feel like as its popularity grew, it got more sexual and increasingly more violent towards women.”

Nina was particularly disturbed by what she called the sexualization of the dead.  “[It’s not just that] these shows bombard you with the dead, sometimes mutilated, bodies of women every single episode, it’s that they sexualize the dead,” she observed, “the women are usually naked, almost always raped, and most of the time are involved in interesting sexual exploits that they [the writers] love to reenact.”

You can read the entire post written February 2007 called Channel Slumming and Why Vassar Girls Are a Television Bellwether by clicking here.  We’d love to hear from you so be sure to jump back and leave a comment.


Here’s a clip reel from David Spade. "Have you been watching CBS lately?" asks Spade, "I watched for one week.  When they say it’s the #1 family network, I didn’t know they meant the Manson family!"