Turning on your TV these days is dangerous for the faint-of-heart. You might land on the lesbians in Orange is the New Black in the throes of oral sex or perhaps someone defecating in Shameless. Even BBC isn’t safe, if it’s Embarrassing Bodies; you might be peeking inside some poor sod’s pile-afflicted bum. Are there no taboos left on TV anymore? Nikki Temkin takes a look.
“This edginess most likely appeals to the younger, well educated, affluent and liberal audience segments. These shows represent a major shift in the television landscape – a movement away from the traditional broadcast model where innocuous programmes were guaranteed sizable audiences, to a narrowcast model, which caters to niche audiences,” says independent media consultant, Britta Reid.
HBO is generally credited with the current ‘golden age of television’. The network was in a unique position of being able to develop content for a subscriber audience without ensuring that advertisers considered its programming sufficiently wholesome to support; it simply had to ensure that subscribers were prepared to pay for its content. In the ’90s and early 2000s, HBO gave us risqué dramas like The Sopranos, Oz and Sex and The City– boundary-breaking TV with unlikely anti-heroes and super-sexual content. Dexter and Californication pushed the envelope further with explicit violence, sexual content and bad language. More recently, Breaking Bad, the unlikely tale of the timid anti-hero schoolteacher who becomes a meth kingpin, entrenched itself in popular culture to become one of the greatest TV successes of recent times.
Many of these began as cult shows for the brave viewer. “Investing in quality productions and pushing the boundaries of acceptable programming were notable differentiators from mainstream broadcasters. As the shows were not produced for mass audiences, they could be far edgier,” explains Reid.
Yet, South Africans in general are still relatively conservative in their viewing. In the US shock TV tends to be linked designated areas for example, cable television. This year, M-Net introduced the Edge channel specifically for envelope-pushing TV. “Where the networks opt to push boundaries, the programming is scheduled in later time slots, which are not suitable for children,” explains M-Net SA CEO Yolisa Phahle. “M-Net is scheduling all these shows on M-Net Edge, channel 102, while M-Net 101 is a channel aimed at a wide family audience.” Over a month, ending on 15 March, the top Edge shows were Vikings, Longmire, Masters of Sex and Looking. These drew a 0.1 AR against adults with digital DStv. The top DStv show over the same period was Isibaya on Mzansi Magic, which drew 8.3 ARs against the same audience. Reid adds, “In South Africa, these shock shows are still not classified as mainstream.”
But have audiences become more accustomed to this type of programming or have we simply become un-shockable? “These shows revel in the freedom that comes with targeting niche audiences. Of course, with grit comes a certain shock value. Over time, however, what once seemed shocking begins to look acceptable,” says Reid. Other popular ‘shock’ shows include Shameless, which finds new ways of crossing the boundaries of human decency without being alienating. Used tampons, human faeces, expletives, incest and even a toddler snorting cocaine (albeit by a mistake, mind you) are common scenes. Even though we know we’re being baited by the gratuitous and oft-graphic content, we simply don’t care because it’s so well-crafted with 3D characters endearing even in their revoltingness. In fact, we’re addicted to what boundary will next be transgressed.
Horror series The Walking Dead sets a new precedent for gore on TV but with a masterful narrative arc. The concept of Masters of Sex, that of a doctor in the late 1950s trying to document human sexuality is groundbreaking in itself — 10 years ago, this might not have worked. Even Game of Thrones, which may have in the past had limited appeal to fans of the fantasy genre, has captured a broad audience despite an incestuous love affair, or perhaps because of it…
Created and directed by the 28-year-old Lena Dunham, Girls has become a phenomenon of television in the vein of Sex & The City. The latter was groundbreaking for graphic (yet unrealistic) sex, swearing and nudity. Girls represents a group of friends in their 20s, also in New York. However, it wants to be grittier and less contrived than its predecessor. Whereas in SATC, you’d never find a stray pubic hair out of place, Girls is rife with cellulite, fat, and even (gasp!) mental illness! The sex is messy, often boring and sometimes erotic in a relatable way. Love it or find it cringeworthy (perhaps you’re not the target market?), it’s made a mark.
“These kind of shows serve a purpose in portraying the more uncomfortable sides of sexuality,” says clinical psychologist Ruth Ancer, adding, “It may be expressed in a no-holds barred manner to capture the attention of the audience but it’s done with a sense of humour.” In one episode of Orange is the New Black, there’s a scene in which the inmates are discussing their various orifices—some of them unaware that their vaginas actually have two different holes. “This kind of content is excellent,” asserts Ancer, “The prison sex may be somewhat romanticised but the show still deals with real issues faced by women today in a refreshing way.”
Presently, the prevalence of streaming and YouTube means that channels are also competing more extremely to capture audience attention. Traditional television business models are changing rapidly due to seismic shifts in consumer preferences, platforms and viewing behaviour. In 2013 studies, Morgan Stanley reported a 50% decline in TV viewership in the last decade. Participant Media’s Pivot Network research found that 8.6 million Millennials are “committed to a broadband-only existence”. The new way of consuming television has liberated shows from the traditional broadcast format, which had to accommodate advertisers and fit into fixed broadcast schedules. “None of this applies anymore allowing for more adventurous and in depth storytelling; more complex characters and more layered and sophisticated plots,” Reid explains. Plus, less time has to spent recapping plots if audiences control their own viewing and binge watch.
As a result of all these changes in the television landscape, networks and studios are ushering in an era of significant new investment, experimentation and innovation. Literally, an explosion of creative content. Netflix utilises its audience data very effectively to predict audience taste. “There is more information and more video content about a greater variety of subjects for people to access on a variety of platforms. However, TV viewers remain discerning and as broadcasters we need to prevent children being exposed to inappropriate content and that there’s always choice available for viewers. Different audiences have different preferences,” says Phahle.
Perhaps these shock comedy-dramas shows are a throwback to a desire for more authentic programming. “Indeed. Audiences want good stories again and are no longer naïve about reality TV,” Reid asserts. Are viewers weary and wary of reality television now?
Phahle says, “Reality television is still very popular across the globe. But, audiences are consuming more entertainment than ever before resulting in an increase in genres to choose from.”
What’s certain too is that shock TV heralds the representation of marginalised minorities. Niche programming allows greater creative license and is drawing directors and actors from the world of film (think True Detective) on to television. We’ll soon be welcoming back master of the weird and eerie with David Lynch’s new Wayward Pines and seeing Vicious about an elderly gay couple and starring Ian McKellan. Whatever your interest, perhaps even your fetish, you’ll probably be able to find something to watch to your tastes. AS Reid concludes, “ As the most socially active group, Millennials could lead the way in terms of generating thought provocative, entertaining and questioning programming. Or perhaps that is a particularly idealistic hope. ”
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