Dad Media Month (Counter-Programming): Why Do We Keep Watching CBS? It’s Complicated.

This month, we are taking a look at Dad Media, a genre of entertainment that celebrates and upholds a type of masculine nostalgia while seemingly leaving little room for nuance. It’s a take we both agree and disagree with, and it’s a genre that allows for a lot of critique. To examine these power structures behind the scenes that have contributed to the persistent power of Dad Media (and it is very, very powerful), Lewton Bus will be running a series of articles we are calling the “Counter-Programming.” They’ll look at the dark side of the genre, and asking how we may square our morality with it.

Update: On September 9, after a blockbuster article by Ronan Farrow at the New Yorker, CBS announced that Les Moonves would be stepping down without compensation. Since the story broke, Farrow has been updating through a tweet thread. Previously, Moonves had been negotiating an exit with a large severance package, which included between $100 million to $180 million and stock. Farrow’s article contains the stories of six women who allege harassment and assault against Moonves and Jeff Fager, a news producer who worked directly under Moonves.

There is a lot to contend with when it comes to men dominating the Dad Media film and television landscape, especially in the crime procedural sub-genre. Let’s take a look at the most Dad-friendly network of them all, CBS, and how it simultaneously uses people of color and women to affirm the status quo while providing just enough effort to pushing the boundaries it has set. 

It matters who gets seen on TV

In 2017, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park announced they would be leaving CBS’ Hawaii Five-0 after playing Chin Ho Kelly and Kono, respectively, for the last 7 seasons. Their departure came after they and the network failed to reach an agreement on pay. What’s really notable about this story is that it isn’t just the case of the show’s two most prominent Asian actors on the show asking for salaries commensurate with their contributions. By offering them pay increases that were still not on par with the salaries of Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan, CBS signaled that two of those actors weren’t worth the money.

Now, some of this could be handwaved by the idea that Chin Ho Kelly and Kono aren’t as iconic as Steve McGarrett and Danny Williams and don’t get as much screen time. But Hawaii Five-0 relies on Hawaii as a setting, gives each episode a Hawaiian name, casts Hawaiian actors as periphery characters (by this I mean the actors playing small parts, not Kim and Park, who are not Hawaiian), and gives Chin and Kono important storylines. This shows that a network that uses the ethnic and cultural specificity of Hawaii to its advantage but when it comes to its two primary Asian actors, the signal CBS is sending is, “you are here for us to use and you should be grateful.”

From left to right, Daniel Dae Kim, Scott Caan, Alex O’Loughlin, and Grace Park.

Hawaii Five-0 is a profitable show for CBS, and it’s one of the pillars of Dad Media on CBS. It’s a reboot of a classic Dad Media show and while it is problematic in some ways (most notably the way it laughs off police violence), is also very entertaining. Can it afford to pay its main Asian actors as much as its white actors? Is this a matter simply about dollar amounts or is it about how the industry devalues the work of people of color while simultaneously not providing opportunities for people or color to have the center of stories? It becomes a cycle. Sideline people of color by not giving them opportunities and then justify paying them less because they get less screen time.

Does this mean Hawaii Five-0 is bad? It’s subjective. Personally, having watched many seasons of it (and almost every other police procedural CBS has on its network) I have enjoyed it plenty. Steve and Danny have a really nice, easy rapport that’s simultaneously bromantic and grumpy. Chin and Kono were integral parts of the show, offering not just toughness but also a familial connection (they’re cousins) that helped underscore the show’s theme of how families are found and made. The show can only improve with the inclusion of more actors of color, but isn’t it really disappointing to take a step back and when examining the structures that got us to this “victory” to find that the victory is pretty small? I’m not trying to detract from the Asian and black actors who are currently on this show; I’m lamenting that even when they get these opportunities it appears to only in service of how they contrast from the white men who get to lead (and be paid more).

Let’s get political

Another CBS staple is Blue Bloods, about the NYPD Commissioner (Tom Selleck) and his Irish Catholic family of cops and lawyers. It’s a show that I’ve enjoyed on occasion, even though I think it’s the most insipid of CBS’ offerings. Blue Bloods’ crime is its habit of simplistic moralizing. The Reagan family spends each episode handling homicide cases, arguing over morality over Sunday meals, and generally peddling a lazy, saccharine perspective of Republican-but-not-racist-Republican politics. One of the most egregious examples is when youngest son Jamie is injured at a black church and the discussion veers into how black people have a point about cops perceiving them to be dangerous, but gosh darn, white people get profiled, too! Repeat these simple lessons every week, and eventually it becomes clear that they aren’t really trying to challenge their viewers. Having one character say that racial profiling happens all the time doesn’t make up for the context in which the conversation is taking place, which is that the occupants of the table tacitly believe that racial profiling is a two-way street of equal consequences. 

Blue Bloods engages in “moral narcissism” where characters act morally out of indulgence and to present themselves as moral people. They don’t think about their actions beyond how they conduct themselves; the show doesn’t, either. It doesn’t consider the ramifications of having a cut and dry morality tale every week that only seems to affirm (and not really challenge) the worldview of its viewers. It pushes the boundaries only slightly (acknowledging black people are profiled!) but dials back as if to say to viewers, “we know you’re not one of those people.” 

To All the Women Who Have Died on Criminal Minds Before

A third pillar of CBS Dad Media, Criminal Minds, is an outlier because while it is about police it’s also about serial killers and its audience is full of women who, unsurprisingly, take their fandom to the streets and the internet. Though other shows on CBS also have a large following among women, Criminal Minds seems to be one of the only shows that actually pays attention to them, in a strange and dichotomous way where every week, women are victims, badasses, and acknowledged audience members. Unfortunately, Criminal Minds has also been plagued by pay disparity issues but has taken steps to rectify it. Two actors, Kirsten Vangsness and AJ Cook, pushed for equal pay and received it, in advance of the show’s 13th season, which finished in the spring. 

I don’t think it’s a hot take to say that Americans are obsessed with true crime, and shows like Criminal Minds do their part to sensationalize it while desensitizing us to it. Certainly, a lot of words have been devoted to why women love true crime and Criminal Minds:

What does it say when one of CBS’ highest rated shows features victimization and violence against women nearly every week? It doesn’t really say that men want to do that to women, though it should be noted that roughly half of all murdered women were killed by an intimate partner. Even more are abused every day. What it says is that even if we have to wade through very uncomfortable stuff, watching women get killed, we eventually get to the elite team of heroes who pledge to obtain justice. It’s a small comfort, weirdly, knowing that maybe if you were murdered there would be some detective out there who would never give up. This is the soul of the police procedural, and an integral part of Dad Media.

Salary disparities aside, Criminal Minds shows that police procedurals are capable of creating characters who pursue justice with empathy. In the video below, Morgan (Shemar Moore) and Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) talk about the aftermath of Reid being kidnapped and almost murdered (I’d warn about spoilers but this episode predates the Obama administration). Reid finally has firsthand experience with what a killer’s victims went through, and resents his fear. Morgan explains that even though what he went through was awful, his empathy will help him be a better person. 

For me, the difference between this video and the Blue Bloods video is that the former is presented as a lecture whereas the latter is two characters speaking candidly with each other about a personal experience that is specific to this show, and this circumstance. You can call it cherry-picking, but having watched many years of both shows, I find the latter to be far more interested in seeing victims as human rather than as pieces of a morality tale.

These perspectives aren’t in conflict. We can enjoy stories of men and women kicking down doors and getting justice in police procedurals that depict violence, and want it to be done with empathy and understanding. Even though women are most frequently the victims and sure, a bit more gender parity would be nice, victims could be defined more as real people and not just bodies. To me, Criminal Minds does this better than other shows on CBS. I’m still keeping a baseball bat by the bed, and pledge to stay sexy and not get murdered.

What about NCIS?

Now, arguably the central pillar of CBS Dad Media is NCIS. Whereas Hawaii Five-0 paints an awkward, rosy portrait of representation and Blue Bloods moralizes and panders, NCIS and Criminal Minds show that there are slightly better ways of chasing the dollar. It’s not to say NCIS or Criminal Minds don’t have problems (they do) or that their many spinoffs are increasingly derivative (and less successful). It’s mostly that NCIS seems to be less problematic of how we think about and associate with CBS Dad Media. It’s a show all dads like, but it’s less offensive in my mind than Blue Bloods’ obvious moralizing, mostly because it’s not trying to impart a lesson as much as it’s just trying to have a breezy, good time.  

NCIS is one of the original shows of CBS’ modern Dad Media lineup. It’s actually a spin-off of JAG, which was very popular but has been eclipsed by its little brother. NCIS is one of the oldest of the new guard, running for more than 15 seasons, and it has two spinoffs of its own. As a result of its longevity, it’s seen a lot more cast churn. The cast during its heyday (before it hit double digit seasons and before Pauley Perrette left under…mysterious circumstances) encompassed mostly white men but also women in leadership, badass Israeli women agents (though Cote de Pablo was great as Ziva, she isn’t Israeli and that remains a misstep of the series), and its moralizing was less about putting people on opposite sides but more about a motley band of misfits, which included a cheerful goth forensic specialist and an elderly Scottish medical examiner. I don’t know whether it helped middle America see differences, even if they’re minor or cliched, as acceptable and deserving of empathy, but I think it tried at least a little. I don’t know if it’s enough.

Les Moonves makes money moves

None of this is possible without Les Moonves, who has been CEO of CBS since 2006. Moonves has always taken a personal look at the shows being approved and has built CBS to be a ratings juggernaut. If I had to compare him to someone as an architect of an entire universe, I would compare him to Kevin Feige, who spearheaded the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So then this brings up the question of how white men use their immense powers for good or evil.

You’ll notice that I haven’t yet mentioned the many allegations of sexual harassment against Moonves. It’s relevant here, not only because they’re horrible and speak to a toxic power structure within CBS, but also because it’s an example of Moonves being essentially untouchable as long as he makes money for CBS. In fact, his contract isn’t up until 2021 and if he departs the network before then (which is unlikely), the network will have to pay him $200 million. Put this way, Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan would, combined and without a pay increase, have to be on Hawaii Five-0 for nearly 21 years to make this kind of money.

Money drives a lot of things, and we should be clear about that. It’s the underlying theme of Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley’s summertime screed against capitalism. Money entraps us and the stakes are high when it’s $200 million on the line.

If money talks, women and POC…don’t

These numbers are evidence that women and people of color don’t get enough opportunities and are woefully underrepresented:

  • Women comprised 43% of all speaking characters on broadcast network programs in 2016-17, the same percentage achieved in 2007–08.
  • Overall, 68% of the programs considered featured casts with more male than female characters. 11% had ensembles with equal numbers of female and male characters. 21% of the programs featured casts with more female than male characters.
  • Black characters in speaking roles comprised 19% of all females in 2016–17, up from 16% in 2015–16. Asian characters accounted for 6% of all females in 2016–17, up from 4% in 2015–16. The percentage of Latinas increased from 4% in 2015–16 to 5% in 2016–17.1

The audience has a role, too

As we have seen time and time again, guilt by association goes in multiple directions. Conservatives who are upset about Colin Kaepernick’s Nike sponsorship are burning their Nike gear. It’s a futile gesture, since Nike already got their money when they bought the shirts and shoes, but also because the idea of being associated with a company that would help Kaepernick speak out against police brutality is so venomous, these people would rather stop wearing Nike altogether. 

So then, this brings up the question of complicity and association. What’s our responsibility as an audience? Are we condoning what CBS airs even if we may like some of it? I grew up with police procedurals, and my love for them hasn’t changed. I’ve been watching CBS since I was a child. It’s just that I’ve gotten smarter. That said…

I don’t think there’s just one answer about what to do about this

Not watching CBS is a personal decision that doesn’t affect the bottom line at all. Neither would writing or reading this article, not really. I’ll remind you that Les Moonves leaving CBS would cost it $200 million, nevermind his yearly salary or the money that the network makes in ad dollars.

This isn’t about staunching the flow of money because I don’t think that’s really possible unless something huge happens. Boycotts just don’t really work unless you have a lot of people doing it, and that’s unlikely here. We just aren’t going to convince middle America’s white people to stop watching, and that’s not even the point because I think Dad Media can be used for good since it has a captive audience of millions. 

It’s about the long game, of how we think about entertainment and what it means. That’s about awareness and I think we can do that. A lot of people (critics, mostly) decry Dad Media for being low brow, average, rote, or badly made. That can all be true (and much of the time it isn’t) – but you can’t deny that a lot of people watch it. As long as those eyeballs are glued to those screens, whether on CBS or on Netflix, which contains the backcatalogs for Hawaii Five-0, Blue Bloods, and Criminal Minds,2 there is a responsibility to point to those shows and ask what it is we are consuming, do we internalize their themes and lessons (as simplistic as they may be), and how do we think about programs that center white people while narrowing its focus on people of color and women to being background, incendiaries, and victims?

They are questions I think about, often as I flip to the next episode to watch Steve and Danny banter, Spencer and Morgan’s friendship unfold, and Jamie half-assedly push back against his family’s traditional, Catholic ways. They’re questions that we should be asking when we talk to the middle aged white people who love these shows. Why do they love them? Why is there a difference between how they love these shows and how I love these shows? Why do I accept lazy writing?

The difference, it seems, is that for some people the comfort is in affirming a world they believe to be true. For many of us who know better, it’s an escape to a world we know isn’t true. That escape is both necessary and terrible, and so the writing may be lazy but it is like Kraft mac and cheese – terrible for you, but it’s there because sometimes you just need a quick meal to get you through the night. Sometimes, you just need to live in comfort for your own sake. That doesn’t mean you don’t interrogate your own reasons, and it doesn’t mean you accept what you’re watching. 

When white men dictate what comes to light we all stay in the dark. I don’t have any real solutions here, clearly. You can watch or don’t watch. You can like this stuff or you don’t. It’s not about policing what people like. It is about wanting Dad Media to be more responsible and careful, and for it to stop pandering to people who aren’t going to engage with a deeper level of thinking. I want networks like CBS to stop being so damn engrained in the status quo. If CBS lost money because people stopped watching NCIS: New Orleans (currently plagued by its own allegations of toxic behavior), Moonves would just end it and pick another one to air, probably NCIS: Topeka or something. It’s who he is and it’s what makes him money. What we can do is try to aim higher and encourage better writing in the Dad Media genre (hello, have you seen Killing Eve?) but without a white male perspective dominating every single page. That’s going to come from giving women and people of color opportunities to tell stories in new ways, even as we acknowledge the influence that CBS has over the Dad Media landscape. 

  1. Women and Hollywood
  2. I know because I’m rewatching all three on Netflix right now