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Network TV, Ensconced in A Blue Period

Election Result May Signal Rebuff of Shows' Locales

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page N01

Looking over the electoral map a day after the election, "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart suggested a novel read on the coastal swaths of blue and the broad middle plains of red: "Maybe the election was the red states' revenge for the blue states controlling the TV."

A joke, yes, but not without a kernel of truth.

For many years, TV dramas and sitcoms, like "Sex and the City" set in New York, have largely ignored red-state existence while extolling blue-city living. (Craig Blankenhorn -- HBO)

Since commercial television began more than 50 years ago, the very blue precincts of New York and Los Angeles have been creating and displaying an imagined America through prime-time comedies and dramas. It could very well be that the red states resent what they see, or rather what they no longer see, in the settings and themes of this imagined TV nation.

This is not a comment on the moral values, or the absence of same, of Hollywood and Manhattan. Entertainment television programs project many values -- some noble, some sleazy, some smarmy, many superficial. It all depends where you look. It's not even necessarily a comment about political values, although conservatives have been complaining about the liberal bias of TV shows and movies for decades.

It is, rather, about place. For the past three decades, network television has gradually eliminated depictions of regions we've come to think of as "red": southern, midwestern, mountainous, rural, exurban. Over the same period, TV shows have become "bluer" -- populated by people and stories set in locations identical to those that voted Democratic on Nov. 2.

TV dramas and sitcoms for years have extolled blue-city living, and marginalized, condescended to or simply ignored just about everywhere else. Even the fact that TV shows are made in Los Angeles and the business of network TV is conducted in a few square blocks of Manhattan does not explain the blue-centric nature of entertainment television.

Where do TV sitcom writers set their stories when they want to signal urban sophistication? Hint: Not conservative Houston, Charlotte, Nashville or Richmond. The preponderance of sitcoms have been set in a handful of very blue cities. New York, of course, has been endlessly adored as the province of the educated, the stylish, the beautiful and the witty ("Friends," "Seinfeld," "Mad About You," "Will and Grace," "Sex and the City," "The Cosby Show"), but so have Boston ("Cheers"), Seattle ("Frasier") and Washington ("Murphy Brown").

Where does TV tell us black, ethnic or working-class Americans strive for the American Dream? Not in Dallas, Phoenix or Charleston, S.C. From "The Honeymooners" to "All in the Family" to "King of Queens" (all New York) to "Roseanne" (Lanford, Ill.), from "Good Times" (Chicago) to "The Jeffersons" (New York again) to "Sanford and Son" (Los Angeles) to "Roc" (Baltimore) , the locale has tended to be Democratic. Television has rarely noticed that there are black people living south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Where have women joined the world of work, contending for parity with men on TV? The 1960s working-gal sitcom "That Girl" was set in New York, not Oklahoma City. The groundbreaking 1970s sitcom "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was set in blue Minneapolis, not red Dallas. In TV's telling, even 1950s Milwaukee ("Laverne & Shirley") was more reasonably accommodating to working women than, say, latter-day Louisville or Memphis or San Antonio.

Where do heroic crimefighters bag the perps and crusading lawyers put them in the pokey? Where do doctors and other public servants tirelessly labor on behalf of the people? In blue America, mostly: Chicago ("ER," "Chicago Hope"), Boston ("St. Elsewhere," "The Practice"), Southern California ("L.A. Law" and 1,001 cop shows), Washington ("The District") and, of course, New York City ("Law & Order," "Third Watch," "NYPD Blue"). We've yet to see "Law & Order: Salt Lake City."

Notably, TV's most popular drama, "CSI," is set in Las Vegas, and its first spinoff is set in Miami, both blue towns in red states. But it didn't take long for the franchise to move solidly into the blue ("CSI: NY"). For obvious reasons, "The West Wing" takes place in Washington. It's less obvious, however, why "Spin City," about a big-city mayor, had to be set in New York.

TV wasn't always so reflexively blue. In fact, red places used to dominate prime time. In the mid-1950s, Hollywood's movie studios, bowing to TV's rising popularity, began churning out made-for-TV westerns (in part employing old western film footage from their vaults). Thematically, as well as geographically, such shows as "Cheyenne," "Gunsmoke," "The Restless Gun," "Have Gun -- Will Travel," "Wagon Train," "Rawhide" and "Bonanza" were red-state shows. They not only featured the wide-open spaces we now think of as red on the political map (it was often, in reality, merely a Southern California backlot), but the implied values of the TV western sound red today, too -- rugged individualism, small government, an aggressive law and order agenda (and don't even ask how they felt about gun control).

These shows were followed by the "hayseed TV" boom of the 1960s. The enormous success of "The Real McCoys" (about a family of West Virginia mountain-dwellers who move to a Southern California ranch) inspired such corn-pone comedies as "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Andy Griffith Show," which begat "Mayberry RFD," "Green Acres," "Gomer Pyle USMC" and "Petticoat Junction," "Hee Haw" and "The Dukes of Hazzard." Some of these shows celebrated homespun values and unsophisticated humor outright, but most based their comedy on a kind of red-blue clash of perspectives: Main Street vs. urban modernism.

With the cancellation of "Dukes" in 1985, network TV's red phase was all but over. Urban, largely blue locales have dominated ever since.

The disappearance of red-skewing shows has little to do with politics. As broadcast historian Erik Barnouw has pointed out, the decline of programs with rural themes and settings was not primarily about ratings -- "Gunsmoke" was among the top 20 shows a year before its cancellation -- but about demographics. The audience for these shows was older and less urban, which was the "wrong" audience, as far as advertisers were concerned. Attempts to revive and update the TV western have crashed for similar reasons. CBS's "Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman" mated a blue sensibility (feminist empowerment) to a red genre and place (the western frontier in Colorado Springs), and was a solid performer for five years for CBS in the mid-1990s. But it, too, was canceled because its audience was insufficiently youthful.

Contemporary reality shows offer a mixed take on the red-blue divide. The granddaddy of the genre, MTV's "The Real World," has been mostly blue from its inception (in 13 seasons of choosing domestic locations, it has used only three cities in red states -- New Orleans, Miami and Las Vegas). "The Simple Life," Fox's shortlived reality series starring Paris Hilton, was equal parts red and blue: With its big-city-twits-meet-life-on-the-farm formula, "Simple Life," like "Green Acres" before it, was a red-blue crossover. "Survivor," the most popular reality show, avoids the issue entirely; Vanuatu and the show's other exotic foreign locales are neither red nor blue, as far as pollsters can tell.

Television, of course, is a diverse medium. There are exceptions to the prevailing blueness of TV series. "Designing Women," for one, was about four professional women working in a red state (specifically in Atlanta). And the hilarious "King of the Hill" would not be as hilarious outside its locale, a very red suburb in Texas.

Which brings us to Springfield. The home town of "The Simpsons" has long been the most geographically indistinct place on TV. It's harder to locate than the Springfield of "Father Knows Best" (which seemed to be midwestern), harder still than the unnamed (but apparently northeastern) city where "Hill Street Blues" took place. Through 15 seasons, "The Simpsons' " creators have kept Springfield's location a mystery (in one classic episode, Marge, on the phone, started to give her address as a friend walked in: ". . . That's Springfield . . . Oh hi, there . . ."). That means Springfield is nowhere, and Everywhere, USA, at once.

Red? Blue? Color "The Simpsons" purple.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company