Fear and Loathing of Madison Avenue

US network television in recent years has become shy and predictable, not very groundbreaking, with a tendency to be extremely formulaic. When other networks saw that CSI was successful, for example, they started developing their own forensics shows to see if they could emulate those ratings. Once Glee became a hit on Fox, NBC responded with Smash. The slew of reality shows coming hard and fast on every network are another illustration of the way the networks mimic each other in an attempt to keep ahead in the race.

Truly radical, remarkable television is becoming rare on the US networks. Some cable networks are changing the dynamics a bit, and meanwhile PBS is achieving astounding success with British imports like Downton Abbey. The British media struggle to make sense of why the show is so popular in the US, probing deep into our psyche and attempting to explain our strange fascination with it; it’s apparently inconceivable that some of us just like good television and are excited to have a show we can really sink our teeth into. Maybe we like it for that reason alone, and no particular motivation beyond that, because some of us happen to like good television.

There are a lot of explanations for why network television in the US seems to be on the decline. Some people point to the changing landscape of media as a whole, and the impact this has had on television. Viewers are using more platforms to follow their favourite shows, may not always see advertisements, don’t gather around the television at the appointed time to catch something. They also have differing expectations from their television, and these changing demands and standards force networks to adapt if they want to continue growing and attracting viewers.

A deep fear of advertisers also seems to be playing a role. Advertisers have growing clout at the same time that they are increasingly vulnerable to outside pressure. Since the nature of media is shifting and advertisers have so many options, television shows have to appeal to them, and offer a good deal, for them to be willing to fork over the cash for a spot on a show. A handful of shows have highly competitive commercial slots, while others are less so, and networks struggle to make them more competitive in order to attract funding.

Meanwhile, consumers are more aggressive than ever about pressuring advertisers, in larger part because of social media. If something appears on a show and viewers dislike it, they can look up the advertisers and the brands involved in product placement and shoot them complaints. They can organise campaigns to put pressure on advertisers, demanding that they withdraw support. This pressure comes from all areas of the political spectrum, from members of the religious right protesting abortion storylines to progressives demanding to know why advertisers are willing to be associated with shows that contain offensive content.

Advertisers are more cautious about what they associate with because they do not want to alienate their base, a base which has become a lot more vocal and powerful. They are extremely careful when it comes to the kind of material presented on television shows alongside their ads, and because networks need their support, they have more vetting power over what does and does not appear. Producers warn creative teams away from storylines that are likely to upset advertisers, run potentially sensitive subjects past sponsors, and effectively live in fear of advertisers. Agencies get to dictate the nature and presentation of content on television, and this means that what consumers see is really shaped by advertisers, from beginning to end.

Not just the ads themselves, but the content sandwiched between them. For every ‘controversial’ storyline that does manage to make it to air, many more end up on the writing room floor, never to be spoken of again, because they represent too much risk for the network. Forced to think about bottom lines, the network wants to appease prospective advertisers and knows that the most effective way to do so is to keep content light. Unchallenging. Neutral.

This is one of the reasons US television is not as exciting as it could be, or as it once was. Great creators have their expression limited by simple economic concerns. Once advertisers start to withdraw support, it can create a ripple effect as more and more companies pull out. They don’t want to be associated with controversy, and suddenly a single advertiser cutting ties can turn into a cluster, an event that will be thoroughly covered by the media, leaving the show without sponsorship because of a creative decision.

The decision may have been a good one for the show and for the characters, it may have been the right move, but it would also be the show’s death knell. So producers warn their writers and their creative teams, direct the focus of shows with advertisers in mind. They make small moves that they present as ‘bold’ and ‘revolutionary’ so viewers don’t feel like they’re watching a watered-down version of television that doesn’t have any real spirit or teeth.

And thus, shows are rewarded for storylines that really aren’t innovative or remarkable at all, because there’s nothing else to take note of, and nothing else to celebrate. It creates a system that feeds itself, as creators retreat to safe ground to retain good relationships with advertisers and are rewarded for it. They take home diversity awards and other recognitions, they remain employed, the network wants to continue working with them into the future.

Viewers, meanwhile, are left wondering why they’re still watching television at all, if it’s going to be so dull.