TV Shows and Sensitivity: How Should Television Address Difficult Topics?

In our divisive political world, television production teams are trying more and more to send their message and address controversial topics. Because, when done right, TV shows can get people talking, spark positive cultural change, and boost ratings. As with anything, there is a right and wrong way to tackle sensitive issues. If done wrong, this can lead to television shows receiving criticism, poor ratings, or possibly being pulled off the air or canceled.

TV Shows Different types of television networks have different levels of content regulation. The most regulated of the types of networks is the broadcast networks. These include channels such as ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. Most of these networks’ shows, while they may address serious topics, still maintain the lighter tone that their networks establish.

Basic Cable channels are a step above broadcast networks, and they have a little more free range when it comes to dealing with more sensitive topics. Channels under this category include FX and AMC, which include more content for adults, compared to the content found on broadcast channels. Paid Cable networks and Streaming are the least regulated of the networks. These include cable channels like HBO and Showtime, and Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

In early 2018, Paramount Network, a basic cable network, planned to air a television remake of the 1989 cult classic film “Heathers.” The movie’s plot revolves around Veronica Sawyer, her love interest, Jason Dean (JD), and her so-called friend group “the Heathers.” The story involves Veronica and JD plotting the deaths of popular students at their school, depicting gun violence amongst students and bullying. While this sort of satire worked in the 1980s in a pre-Columbine world, taking on a story of this magnitude should be done so with caution. On top of the subject matter, Paramount cast the main antagonists (the Heathers) and minorities, including Heather Chandler as plus-sized, Heather Duke as gender-queer, and Heather Macnamara as black, which many interpreted as the producers villainizing these types of people. After months of delay due to several school shootings in 2018, Paramount decided to air nine episodes of “Heathers” on their network over the course of five days in October.

Netflix is a powerhouse when it comes to their original content. With executive producer Selena Gomez and based on a popular novel, “Thirteen Reasons Why” fit what makes Netflix Originals successful. After the initial release of the series, it received mixed reviews. Some said the show brought awareness to the affects of bullying and argued it was thought-provoking and would change how people think about their actions. Others felt it glorified suicide with the idea of creating these “tapes” for people that made life bad for them as a sort of revenge and punishment. The idea of leaving these tapes also sparked a meme in the online community, which did not help their cause. While season one was based on the book, season two, and the recently green-lit season three, are both original and continue where the first leaves off in a post-Hannah Baker world.

TV Shows

ABC is known for their more family-friendly content, as their parent company is media powerhouse Disney. “Black-ish” follows a successful black man in the suburbs and his middle-class family. The story portrays the life of a group of people that up until recently, was not portrayed on television. The show is considered a comedy, but does not shy away from sensitive topics, especially those relating to the black community, such as police brutality. The show also addressed the results of the 2016 election, which shocked many. Despite addressing divisive political topics, the ratings have remained good and this fall, the show entered its fifth season.

In all, it is not the severity of the topics that a television show chooses to talk about. Different shows may depict the same issue, one may do a good job and approach the topic from all angles and with sensitivity. Others, if done incorrectly, may result in controversy over their television show, which could result in various consequences, such as poor ratings, boycotts, or being canceled by the network. It is important to use common sense and do research before addressing a divisive issue. While it is great to get people talking about these important issues, if television series are going to use their voices to bring important ideas to the table, they need to do it the right way. How should television networks bring sensitive topics to light without offending audiences? Should television avoid tackling divisive topics all together? Do you think there are certain topics that should remain off-limits?

-Gabby Leitner

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