Execs Mull How to Gear Blue Shows to Red States

Nov 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

When TBS created the upcoming reality series “The Real Gilligan’s Island,” one of the inside jokes built into the show was that the real-life scientist cast as “The Professor” would be gay-playing off rumors that once circulated among some viewers of the original series.

However, in the wake of a perceived shift in the national mood to the right after the recent election, that may be tough to figure out from the planned promotion for the program.

“How we promote that and position that is something we have to be conscious of, and the election has made us conscious of how we’re going to use it,” said Steve Koonin, executive VP and chief operating officer of TBS and TNT, who noted that Turner’s home base of Atlanta is in the firmly red state of Georgia. “We will use that he’s gay in the marketing, but I want to be careful.”

Mr. Koonin’s concerns are shared by many in television. The election’s impact is expected to be felt not only in how shows are promoted but also in the content of some shows. Some executives are openly wondering whether conservative advocacy groups will have greater impact in shouting down risque programming, rallying the Federal Communications Commission or scaring off advertisers.

“I do feel advocacy groups will feel emboldened by the election,” Mr. Koonin said. “It’s unfortunate loud groups with great e-mail lists can influence company decisions.”

Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research for Horizon Media, agreed.

“It puts the broadcasters in a predicament because younger viewers tend to like shows that are more risque,” he said. “But there’s gotta be a line between what’s appropriate and what isn’t. That line has been shifting toward risque, but now it might be shifting back.”

Arguably the most edgy nonpremium network on the air is FX, home of “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck”-a program that, according to a casual survey of some conservative markets and liberal markets, ranks about the same regardless of a market’s political demographics. John Landgraf, FX president of entertainment, said the election “might impact what programmers put on the air but won’t impact what’s popular.”

Recently FX increased its edge potential by greenlighting a pilot for an Iraq war drama called “Over There” and a Ten Commandments miniseries-two potential partisan lightning rods.

“We were talking before the election about not wanting shows that are aimed at people within 10 miles of the Atlantic and the Pacific,” Mr. Landgraf said.

In the Iraq series, Mr. Landgraf said, the network will present an even-handed portrayal, even though most Americans across the ideological spectrum have firm opinions about the war. “We cannot endorse either side,” he said.

Still, citing “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Mr. Landgraf said there’s “real money to be made catering to segments of the population with strong political beliefs.”

Some in the industry think the perceived change in national mood will result in more shows that will appeal to the “values voters”-those who cited “moral values” as their top concern when exiting the polls.

The re-election of President Bush and the passing of same-sex marriage bans in 11 states left many in the entertainment community wondering whether they understand Middle American sensibilities-and whether programming opportunities are being overlooked in the process.

But asked whether viewers can expect more shows along the lines of “Blue Collar TV” and “Joan of Arcadia” and fewer like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “Nip/Tuck,” executives were as divided as voters.

Ted Harbert, CEO and president of E! Networks, predicted the election will signal a programming shift.

“Yes, I’m going to really go out there to consciously appeal to [viewers in red states],” Mr. Harbert said. “There’s a bunch of ratings points to be had, and you forget about them at your own peril. And I think we’re particularly well-positioned because everybody wants to know about Hollywood celebrities-whether they want to embrace them or ridicule them.”

E!’s recently announced Wayne Newton reality show, “The Entertainer,” Mr. Harbert noted, was specifically greenlighted to appeal to red state viewers. “If there’s anybody who represents the red states, it’s Wayne Newton,” he said.

Robert Townsend, the director and star of “Hollywood Shuffle” and recently appointed president and CEO of the newly rebranded Black Family Channel, said his entire network is geared toward providing African American programming that isn’t blue-state urbanite.

“When we look at red states and blue states, somebody’s got to do programming that speaks to everybody,” Mr. Townsend said. “We have to be responsible and think that’s what’s missing right now.”

Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC Universal Cable, took an opposing view on whether the election will shape his programming choices

“Absolutely not,” he said firmly. “`Joan of Arcadia’ is not a hit. `Nip/Tuck’ is a huge hit. The public votes every night. [The top-rated] `Desperate Housewives’ is as amoral a show as there is on television.”

Still, Mr. Gaspin admitted the election has provoked some consideration.

“You have to follow the mood of the country,” he said. “The only thing the election said to us programmers is that there’s a big country and that there’s a lot of people who live between New York and Los Angeles … and that we have a tendency to think `big city.’ But that’s the only thing.”