What do men want?Television's answer isn't a pretty one 11/01/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern
Television used to be so much better before the networks began paying attention to men. We are only a little less than half of the American population, but most of the worst stuff on television these days is made in our honor, even though, historically, there are more women viewers and more advertisers that want to reach them.
I don't want to ask the question, but I will: Is this what men want?
To some extent, cable television is captivated by wrestling men, first on USA and now on TNN. The World Wrestling Federation telecasts consistently rank at or near the top of cable's Nielsen ratings, put there by millions of boys and young men.
At the best, I once thought, WWF was a badly done morality play. Then I realized that its appeal is much less than that. In fact, the WWF and most other shows that appeal to men thrive on deliberately low intentions. Either that's because that's what men want, or it's because of who men are.
WWF isn't just sexist and violent and vile and crude. It's also bad-looking, badly done, overlit, overwrought, overloud. Wrestling isn't alone. Remember The Man Show? It looked like a local talk show, and, what's more, it was supposed to. Indeed, from Tom Green on MTV to South Park on Comedy Central, the idea appears to be that the cheaper television looks, the more authentic it must be. And the more authentic it is, the more likely there will be really gross flatulence jokes.
Those are very important.
Television men are unusually interested in bodily functions that are way beyond sex, which they don't get, in both senses of the phrase. In fact, announcing Jackass, MTV's Web site enthused, "This fall, MTV prepares to paint the world an absurd shade of brown." Yes, indeed. Johnny Knoxville, the main jackass on the show, was, according to the Web site, "upended in a porta-potty chock full of poo and pee for one skit entitled 'The Poo Cocktail.'"
Since then, a New York City magazine, Time Out, has called Jackass "the most brilliant show on television—not because it is smart (it is relentlessly dumb) but because it is a pure distillation of exactly what America wants to watch."
Would that be poo? Yes. Jackass is full of it.
Or it could be more-cerebral stuff, like the other skit Time Out mentioned. Another cast member announced, "Today, I'm going to beat up my dad." Then he did.
It is a joke. I get a joke. I don't mean to scold. But television shows for men are mainly television shows that are against someone else. Watch Howard Stern (on finer CBS O&Os everywhere), and, yes, you'll see he'll make fun of himself. But he will thoroughly humiliate others.
(You will also get some flatulence jokes. I swear, they're everywhere.)
Cable television sold itself to Americans, in part, on the idea that it was liberated from the conventions of broadcast TV.
It's a great distinction, but, as cable has pushed the envelope, so have NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox. There's not much of that damn envelope left. (Want proof? In the mid '90s, a character used the word "sucked" on a horrible CBS sitcom, and critics pounced. Since then, the slang has become so commonplace that, last year, Mel Karmazin said CBS "sucks less" than the other networks in terms of its relationship with its affiliates. Time marches on!)
But nowhere is television more repugnant than when it's going after men. NBC's experiment with the XFL was hyped on the idea—barely beneath the surface—that players were going to get hurt. (Even the team nicknames suggested death—Hitmen and Maniax, for example.)
That was the whole idea behind the "smash mouth" branding and the incessant reminders that rules that protect players in the NFL were eased or eliminated in the XFL. But after the first week, with no sign of significant carnage, male viewers began to check out. The scary moral is that maybe the XFL didn't go far enough to succeed.
The other, even more scary thing is that television producers will have to go further to gross out guys, and, as they do, the industry will move with them. A couple weekends ago, for example, The WB premiered The Oblongs, a cartoon show about a dad who's a quadrapalegic; a mom who's a cancerous alcoholic; their conjoined twin sons who have three rear ends; and the family's youngest, an emotionally scarred little boy named Milo. Man, that just sounds funny. But I'm that kind of guy.