CBS is the GOP of TV: The network's Year of White Men coincides all too well with the rise of Donald Trump

If broadcast networks are our virtual town squares, this one might as well hang up a "white men preferred" sign

Published May 22, 2016 8:30PM (EDT)

Donald Trump; "The Big Bang Theory"    (Reuters/L.E. Baskow/CBS/Salon)
Donald Trump; "The Big Bang Theory" (Reuters/L.E. Baskow/CBS/Salon)

Earlier this week, when announcing broadcast giant CBS’s upcoming programming for the fall, Deadline reported a little piece of gossip that, intentionally or not, sent shock waves through the Internet. Hold on, though: It’s difficult to explain without a bit of context.

This entire week has been one of studios, broadcast networks, and cable channels meeting with their advertisers, new and old, to announce which direction they’re going for the 2016-2017 television season. The press is there too, but we’re secondary to this business deal. Network upfronts are all about the networks trying to impress the advertisers with current viewer stats and future ideas so that the advertisers make season-long deals (and, most importantly, cut those season-long checks).

And because those fall schedules are being finalized, there’s all kinds of news thrown into these presentations—another new season of a show you love or hate, series orders of something new, and, most jarring, sudden non-renewals. This week, “Castle” fans discovered it wasn’t getting renewed just days before what ended up being the show’s series finale, which was a bit of a trip; “Nashville” is about to face the exact same situation, this upcoming Wednesday, albeit with about a week’s notice.

So, given these major upheavals happening for shows that viewers are already watching, the news that CBS had decided to greenlight one new series and pass on another—shows that don’t even exist yet, except for a pilot—is not really the type of thing that should make major shockwaves. The press hasn’t even seen most of these pilots; the viewing public definitely hasn’t. The Deadline piece might well have been just another news hit about where CBS was focusing for the fall.

Except for this seemingly throwaway line—a phrase tossed into a sentence with so little fanfare it seems clear that Deadline (and the piece’s writer, Nellie Andreeva) had no idea that those two words would end up being the story. See if you can spot it:

“Drew” is not going forward at CBS but is being shopped to other outlets by CBS TV Studios. I hear the pilot tested well but skewed too female for CBS’ schedule. In the end of the day, I hear the network had no 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. slot available.

“Too female,” you say? Oh, boy.

* * *

It’s not news that networks have target demographics. We know about Lifetime, “television for women,” and Spike, which used to advertise itself as “the first network for men” (is… that… so). There are channels for children and channels for sports fans; channels for old people and young people and teenage people. Even on broadcast television, networks like The CW and Freeform (previously ABC Family) tend to tailor their programming to a younger demographic.

But the major broadcast networks—CBS, ABC, and NBC in particular—are supposed to be different. As the three oldest television networks, which originally got the right to broadcast from the government, they are theoretically supposed to balance their great power with great responsibility: access to the scarce resource of mass media, in exchange for a vested interest in the public good. There’s a lot of different ways to interpret that—the most well-known aspect of that expectation are the Federal Communications Commission’s guidelines for on-screen “decency,” when it comes to nudity, profanity, and violence—but one, anyway, is making a network than anyone could watch.

The broadcast giants have news, sports, and scripted programming; they also have soap operas and talk shows and late-night comedy. They air the Super Bowl and the Olympics and the Academy Awards and “Grease Live!”; warts and all, the broadcast networks serve as our virtual town squares, our advertisement-coated and sanitized shopping malls where everyone is invited and no one has to ever leave.

Television has changed a lot since the big three were the only game in town, but the primacy of those major networks can still be felt in a lot of ways. The most important is that they’re free, with the right equipment; everything else, from Netflix to E! to HBO, requires a subscription. These are still major pillars of American life that still signify a certain collective American zeitgeist. And because it is so beholden to the establishment—both in terms of federal standards and advertisers’ sensibilities—broadcast inherently skews conservative, presenting and reproducing the most convenient version of the status quo.

On one hand, one of the many reasons that non-broadcast television shows on prestige cable became so popular, over the last 20 years or so, is because they challenged those established norms. But on the other, when a broadcast network does adapt to what American really looks like—whether that means including single moms, black families, gay characters, or trans characters—it often signifies a major sea change in the American consciousness. Broadcast’s conservatism can be frustrating, but it’s also a great barometer for what America’s saying, thinking, and feeling about itself.

Over the past decade or so, partly because prestige and cable television have become so popular, broadcast has been scrambling to keep up with a savvier audience with more options than ever. One of the major ways that’s happened, across the board, is casting with both complex female narratives and racial diversity in mind, after decades of deprioritizing making American TV shows look like America. Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland shows, “Empire,” new sitcoms like “Black-ish,” “The Carmichael Show,” and “Fresh Off The Boat,” and even just single characters like Lucy Liu in “Elementary,” Nicole Beharie in “Sleepy Hollow,” and Jennifer Lopez in “Shades Of Blue” are evidence of that renewed focus.

Even CBS—the least-hip broadcast network, with the viewership that skews the oldest—has made efforts towards that, in the past. More tepid efforts, when compared to the other major networks, to be sure. But shows like “The Good Wife” and “Madam Secretary” are very engaged with the questions of women in the working world, for example, newer shows “Rush Hour,” “Scorpion,” and “Code Black” are led by actors of color.

This year, as the Deadline piece portended, that is not the case. This fall on CBS is the year of the white man, with Kevin James, Matt LeBlanc, Joel McHale, Dermot Mulroney, and Bill Paxton all joining the CBS family, in addition to a whole crop of freshfaced newcomers who are also, you guessed it, white guys. The exceptions: Paxton’s costar in “Training Day,” Justin Cornwell, and the show “Doubt,” starring Katherine Heigl and Laverne Cox. “Drew,” if it had not been deemed “too female,” would have added Iranian/Spanish Sarah Shahi to that list.

All of that momentum about the changing face of Hollywood, and all of a sudden, thud: CBS had decided it just doesn’t care anymore. Forget racial diversity; even contemplating gender is too complex for CBS. Last season’s “Supergirl”—CBS’ grand gesture towards the trends of current television—is now being shoved to sister network the CW, to make room for, I shit you not, a “MacGyver” remake.

CBS’s new entertainment president, Glenn Geller, insists that the network is more diverse than ever, and that might be true, in supporting roles. But it is telling, reading his remarks, that “Doubt” was in direct competition with “Drew” to fit what is, presumably, CBS’s lone “ethnic/gender/critical stuff” slot, while six other shows are led by white men. There are just eight new shows on CBS this year. Geller emphatically denies that “Drew” was turned down for being “too female.” But the network’s overall strategy suggests that that is exactly what happened, even if no one exactly said it that way.

What is perhaps the most difficult to stomach about this entire situation is that CBS is America’s top-rated network, and has been for years, albeit with some give-and-take with NBC over sports. The same network that says that things skew too female is the one that most Americans end up watching; the same network that is now flooded with white men is the one that hits best with quote-unquote Middle America. Some of its shows have moments of brilliance, but what makes CBS tick are shows like “The Big Bang Theory,” “Criminal Minds,” “NCIS,” and “2 Broke Girls”—broad comedies with lots of gender essentialism and racist jokes, or procedural dramas whose characters are motivated by Truth and/or Patriotism. Its frustrating strategy makes perfect business sense—consistency, reliability, and mediocrity, year after year after year.

Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff calls CBS “the biggest, best-run, smartest, most dispiriting network on broadcast TV” for precisely this reason.

CBS's fall schedule is incredibly conservative — in almost every sense of that word… You want economic conservatism? The network is airing a show about how the American health care system is broken and the only thing that can save it is tech billionaires turning it into some sort of weird surveillance state (it was created by Friday Night Lights' Jason Katims, of all people). You want "faith, family, and the flag" social conservatism? CBS has plenty of offerings about red-blooded American guys who wonder what's up with their crazy kids.

And, hey, you want the sort of pining for an ill-defined version of the 1950s conservatism that has defined a lot of the recent Republican presidential primary? Every single one of CBS's new shows is headed up by a renegade maverick white dude with a gruff exterior and a heart of gold. (Remember: One of these shows is about young Dr. Phil.)

Even one of CBS’ most critically beloved shows, “The Good Wife,” skewed further conservative than any other prestige drama in awards contention. Avoiding racial diversity and gender politics are an easy way to maintain a safe, uncomplicated stable of programming for CBS’ audience; it is both frustrating and relentlessly successful. This is a conservative success, and like every new state that votes overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in their Republican primary, it reveals something very stubborn at the heart of this nation. There is a lot of influence to be gained in expecting the worst of people; if something is lost in the process, it sure isn’t money.

I don’t exactly know, to be honest, how this retrenchment is going to work, either for CBS or the Republican party. Establishment Republicans have expressed amazement, over the last several months, that their deliberate efforts over the last several decades to racially divide the nation have ended up working so well, but it is difficult to imagine what the party of Trump looks like in 20 years, as the nation becomes more and more diverse. CBS’ strategy could have a similar shelf life.

But perhaps not, too. Trump counts plenty of young people among his supporters—especially white men. And CBS’ audience does skew older, but it’s not exclusively old. There are plenty of young people appointment-viewing “The Big Bang Theory,” just as there are plenty of young people enthusiastically banging the drum for Donald Trump. They might more resemble their parents than their peers, but they exist, and both CBS and Trump know about them. And while there are lots and lots of young Americans interested in alternative television programming and alternative political ideologies, they’re fragmenting, not coalescing around a rival institution. Young Democrats are still divided between Senators Sanders and Clinton; and young television viewers are more likely than ever to torrent TV shows or borrow a friend’s parents’ HBOGo login or Netflix password.

This is all a long way of saying that despite all of this talk, the status quo is still very, very entrenched. Yes, Laverne Cox is about to be employed by CBS. Yes, Caitlyn Jenner used Donald Trump’s bathroom. But I worry that these might be concessions to progressive identity politics that mask the far broader institutional inequalities and injustices that currently exist in our status quo—inequalities and injustices that the Republican party (including Trump) and CBS as a network are actively capitalizing on.

At the very least, that just one show would skew “too female” when seven of the eight shows approved are entirely about men is ludicrous. And it depicts the kind of reactionary sexism against giving women an equal shot in entertainment that looks a lot like the backlash faced against female politicians—and one female politician, in particular. If “Drew” is “too female” for a set of new programming that is 87.5 percent male-centered, will that same audience find Hillary Clinton “too female” for a political office that has been, up till now, 100 percent male? I am honestly afraid to find out.

By Sonia Saraiya

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