March Badness

Sex, sharks, and snuff. CBS has no shameâ??or clue.


In five or so years, when network television is a distant, unpleasant memory, historians may be able to pinpoint the precise moment that the entire business model jumped the shark and started its unrecoverable slide to oblivion. With millions of American eyeballs glued for days and days to the glorious NCAA basketball tourney, what does CBS assail them with at every opportunity?

Spring Break Shark Attack, a cheesy made-for-TV flick that spent most of its budget on suntan lotion. This is just part of a decidedly incongruous, adult-skewing promo line-up that hypes such fare as the net's gooey crime dramas. And not just once or twice, but over and over, inside the coverage of the games on banners and via hapless announcers pressed into hyping the shows. This torrent does not quite ruin the viewing experience, but it surely takes it down a few notches.

Network execs are plainly caught in the old mass media paradigm. You have a property with millions of viewers; all you need to do to get them to watch another CBS property is beat them over the head for hours on end and you're golden. They'll have to watch what you promo because they have nothing better to do.

Broadcast TV already gets less than a 50 percent share of total TV viewers, and advertisers are starting to catch on. Their money will soon follow consumers' money to greener pastures, like the $11 billion video game market. Even the best big TV nets are only clearing $500 million a year, the Hollywood Reporter figures. And what look like stable programming franchises are actually dwarfed by emerging platforms like cell phones and other devices that can be personalized to match individual taste—or lack thereof. Ringtones came from nowhere to become a $3 billion business by selling choice, not by selling, well, relentless selling and no choice.

But even the possibility of narrowcasting to self-selecting groups escapes CBS and the nets. It is not even possible to subscribe your way free of CBS' promo assault. The DirecTV tourney package, which provides the true hoops junkie all the games played, still includes the same sharks and scalpels from CBS.

Programmers looking for new revenue streams should instead explore ways to strip out the stuff that no one wants—like Spring Break Shark Attack, let's say—and then charge more for it. Here's an absolute no-brainer to start: For an extra $10 or $15 bucks a game, kill the CBS announcers and pipe in the home-town radio feed of the viewer's choice. There is not a basketball nut in America who could resist watching their team on TV and listening to their radio guys. Personalized coverage.

Instead CBS sticks to its mass market ways, which evidently include driving small children away from college basketball games. I do not think it is a stretch to say that CBS' CSI and Cold Case promos come in at least a PG-10 or -11 level. They deal in the violent deaths of seemingly normal people going about their normal lives, not the fantasy violence of superheroes or even the occasionally creepy Harry Potter series.

Corpses, weapons, and dark malevolent thoughts are used in CBS' promos as come-ons for adult viewers. "I enjoyed her suffering," one woman explains, evidently referring to a murder victim. From a strictly parental-control standpoint, you'd be better off having John Stagliano's greatest hits multiplexed just a click away on your box. At least you would be in control of Stag's content and would be responsible for locking it away.

Particularly bizarre is CBS' attempt to skew young with CSI, touting a no doubt very special episode featuring skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, who not long ago dropped by in cartoon form for an episode of Rocket Power. Luckily my peripatetic seven-year-old bounded away so I would not have to explain to him why Hawk's broken body was being zippered away. As it is, ESPN's Bill Simmons notes the only lasting societal impact of the Hawk promo may be thousands of stoned skateboarders out there wondering how and when Hawk died.

Oops, another promo is up, for CSI: Emporia I think. Dive for the remote. Too late! Cue impossibly gorgeous forensic lady:

This isn't a simulation. It's a snuff movie.

"Daddy, what's a snuff movie?"

Gee thanks, CBS. I'll take the odd halftime titty surprise any day.