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Parents Television Council - Because Our Children Are Watching

Culture Watch

Entertainment Industry News by Christopher Gildemeister

For the Week of December 11, 2006


When cable networks first gained widespread popularity in the early 1980s, one of the presumptions often made was that cable would grant greater diversity in programming by allowing organizations other than the established three broadcast television networks access to American homes. This presumption has largely been disappointed as cable, like broadcast, has come to be dominated by a few vast media conglomerates. While within each conglomerate there are multiple networks, each ostensibly with its own focus or "brand" and appealing to its own demographic, yet it is undeniable that each conglomerate seeks to organize programming on each network is such a way as to influence viewers to continue to patronize other products of the same group. Efforts by one such conglomerate, Viacom (parent corporation of cable networks Nickelodeon, Noggin, MTV, Spike TV and Comedy Central, as well as the CBS broadcast network)  are worthy of concern by parents and families. 


Originating in 1979, Nickelodeon was the first network with programming aimed at children. It has long dominated the field, having been the top-ranked children's cable network for more than a decade, consistently topping rivals like Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel. In 2005 Nickelodeon aired all of the 30 top-rated shows among 2-11-year-olds.  In its earliest years Nickelodeon aired imported programming aimed at a juvenile audience, such as Canada's You Can't Do That On Television and the venerable British science-fiction program The Tomorrow People. Over time Nick has developed many original programs, yet such programming has always had a decidedly schizophrenic flavor, with some shows solidly responsible and aimed at a child audience (Blue's Clues, Dora the Explorer) and others dominated by crude scatological humor (Ren and Stimpy and the later seasons of Rugrats). Among the latter is Nick's new program Mr. Meaty, which features a pair of doltish high-school boys obsessed with graphically violent horror movies.  That Nickelodeon should favor programming championing crude humor should come as little surprise given the attitude of network head Cyma Zarghami.  Ms. Zarghami revealed her idea of appropriate behavior for the head of a children's network at a March meeting, where she startled staffers by using the F-word in a speech. Zarghami later boasted that she "absolutely" enjoys profanity, saying ""I feel like it's a great way to make a point." (TV, April 10, 2006)  Nickelodeon head Ms. Zarghami was also named MTV Networks' Kids and Family Group president in January 2006. The very fact that Nickelodeon is a subsidiary of MTV should be of concern to parents.


In addition to Nickelodeon and its subsidiary Nick Jr., which airs programming intended for preschoolers, Viacom also controls the Noggin network.  Originally created as a noncommercial joint venture between Nickelodeon and the Children's Television Workshop (the production company behind Sesame Street), Noggin was purchased in its entirety by Viacom in 2002. Not coincidentally, Noggin thereafter stopped showing such educational programs as 321 Contact, Bill Nye The Science Guy, Sesame Street or The Electric Company, preferring to concentrate on Nickelodeon-owned properties like Blue's Clues and Dora The Explorer. And Viacom recently announced that the creative and management teams of Noggin and Nick Jr. are being amalgamated into a single group, which will produce programming for both networks.


But it is not Noggin's forced alliance with Nickelodeon that is of greatest concern.  Rather, it is the other network which shares Noggin's channel and airtime. The N was created shortly after Viacom's sole acquisition of Noggin in April 2002, and targets the 9-to-14 age group, which programmers and advertisers refer to as "tweeners" -- which most other adults would think of as "children." Noggin airs programming for preschoolers during the day. But woe betide the parent who is not present to change the channel at precisely 6 p.m. (3 p.m. in the Pacific time zone), when the innocuous Dr. Jekyll of Noggin transforms Hyde-like into The N, where programming is dominated by soap operas glorifying teenage sex. The positioning of The N's programming immediately after Noggin's, and so early in the day, is no accident. Both networks' sole revenue derives from cable subscription fees. While the networks presumably to run at a financial loss, their presence is invaluable to Viacom: Noggin promotes the important Nickelodeon brands Dora the Explorer and Blue's Clues to preschoolers, while The N serves to introduce "tweens" to MTV-style programming laden with sex and profanity. Programming on the N is typified by such programs as Beyond the Break, a series about surfers which essentially serves as Baywatch for teens; Whistler, the story of a snow-boarding athlete which features a female lead character who has sex for money; and reruns of the smut-filled series Dawson's Creek, whose teen characters have sex with parents, teachers and one another.


Another series of which The N's management is apparently particularly proud is Degrassi: The Next Generation, a Canadian series set in a high school. This program has featured storylines about drug dealing, teen drinking, domestic violence, rape, child abuse, pedophilia, teen pregnancy, abortion, pornography, oral sex and venereal disease. Specific incidents shown on the N have included use of the word "faggot," a scene showing a male character's erection, two teens renting a hotel room to have sex, a character contracting gonorrhea in her throat from oral sex, and one girl calling another a "low-grade ho."


But The N's proudest achievement has been its original series South of Nowhere, the second season of which premiered on September 29. This teen drama features three lead characters: Spencer, a befuddled girl who begins a lesbian affair with her best friend Ashley; Ashley, who begins sleeping with Spencer after getting pregnant by jock boyfriend Aiden; and Aiden, who after both Ashley and Spencer reject his sexual advances, breaks up with another girl after having sex with her. Nickelodeon executive vice president and general manager Tom Ascheim, who is also founder and overseer of The N, has said in an interview that South of Nowhere is symbolizes the way the channel wants to present itself. And Sarah Tomassi Lindman, The N's vice president for programming and production, says the long-term plan of the network is to loosen broadcast standards to allow for more explicit content: "There isn't a list of taboo subjects," Lindman says. (New York Times, April 2, 2006) Ominously, between 2004 and 2005 the N's ratings among teenagers rose 35 percent.


From Nick Jr. and Noggin's preschool-aged programming, on up through Nickelodeon, aimed at children aged 6 through 10, to The N, targeted at "tweens" 9 -14, Viacom has a network in place for every age of child. And for those over age 14, MTV awaits – and itself prepares viewers for such Viacom-owned Comedy Central fare as South Park, Drawn Together and the horrendously bigoted, sexist and profanity-laden "roasts" of Pamela Anderson and William Shatner. Thus, Viacom has created a veritable conveyor belt of networks, designed for every age group from preschoolers to adults; and it is using them to groom an entire generation to be receptive to its crassly materialistic and eroticized view of the world, and to view teen sex and profanity as commonplace – thereby undermining the attempts of parents to raise their children in a wholesome environment.


"They've identified this key group between Nickelodeon and MTV…If we look back at what MTV was 10 years ago, and what it is today, it's now a pop culture factory. They can build the N into that same level of network." -- Amy Harris, director of Starcom Entertainment media agency (New York Times, April 2, 2006)

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