It is no secret that the Defense Department has an enormous amount of influence on the entertainment industry, especially if a movie or a television show wants access to military equipment or to shoot on a location owned by the armed services. Most of the time, though, the DoD’s influence comes in at the script stage, when Phil Strub, who has served as the department’s liaison to the entertainment industry since 1989, gives a thumbs up or thumbs down to the depictions of soldiers and military organizations before okaying requests for collaboration.
But those big sticks do not always get the Defense Department or military viewers everything they want. Plenty of projects have moved forward without Strub’s sign-off. And now, the plight of “Enlisted,” one of the best and least-watched new comedies of the 2013-2014 television season, has become something of a cause.
On Friday, the editorial page of Army Times, the Gannett publication aimed at members of that branch of the service, issued an unusual call for Fox to give the military comedy a better position in the schedule. “‘Enlisted’ airs at a dreadful time: 9 p.m. Fridays,” the paper wrote. “If the show is to survive, it must have better visibility. Fox can—and should—make that happen immediately.”
Tony Lombardo, the managing editor of Army Times, said the unusual editorial grew out of the paper’s continuing coverage of “Enlisted” and the frustrations he and assistant managing editor Amanda Miller were hearing from readers who couldn’t catch the show in its time slot. In a shift from the super-soldiers who are action-movie staples, “the unit is also a rear detachment unit. They’re not the one with guns blazing on the front lines,” Lombardo said. And Miller emphasized that the show was providing a less-heightened perspective on the problems military communities face than audiences might encounter otherwise. “For me, it’s nice to see it in an enjoyable context,” she said. “The PTSD treatment was not super-serious. It wasn’t super-dramatic. It was understated and made it seem like a real relatable portrayal.”
But the show may face another challenge in addition to its Friday night timeslot. As a Nielsen representative explained, the monitoring firm can track the viewing habits for some, but not all, members of the military. Service members and their families who live in officer’s housing that meets the census definition of a household, “a house, an apartment, a mobile home, a group of rooms, or a single room that is occupied (or if vacant, is intended for occupancy) as separate living quarters,” can become Nielsen families. But soldiers who live in barracks housing, like other people who live in what are known as “group quarters,” such as prisons, retirement homes, and other institutions, cannot. The census does not break out how many Americans live in military barracks, but as of the 2009 American Community Survey, 8.28 million Americans were living in group quarters, 2.2 million of them in adult correctional facilities, 1.8 million in nursing facilities and 2.5 million in college and university housing.
In 2007, Nielsen added a number of college students to the sample it measures. Rather than reclassifying dormitories as households or housing units, and choosing college students at random, the company asked existing Nielsen households with college-aged children if those children would volunteer to participate and then picked a randomized pool from those who opted in. Getting into the Nielsen ratings pool still involved being tied to a household.
These numbers are not necessarily big enough to turn “Enlisted” from a beloved niche show into a hit. And to be sure, many service members and their families live off-post, in housing that might make them eligible to become a Nielsen household. But these figures are a reminder that if a show is connecting particularly hard with the kind of Americans “Enlisted” is about, members of the armed services who live in barracks housing, the Nielsen ratings might not capture their enthusiasm.
Series creator Kevin Biegel, whose father, grandfather and uncle all served in the military, and who has friends in the armed services, says those viewers who might not be measured are exactly the ones he wanted to reach. And Biegel says the response from those viewers has been positive, even if they aren’t getting measured–and even if they think the characters’ haircuts are longer than would be allowed by regulations.
“With military viewers, the ones who watch and give it a chance, the response we’ve gotten is humbling,” he said. “A lot enjoy that it’s a look at something they do and care about that isn’t poking fun at their jobs or lives.”
In truth, the problems for “Enlisted” started earlier than the selection of that time slot. Last summer, Fox President Kevin Reilly decided to put “Dads,” a crass live-action sitcom from Seth MacFarlane, who has a long track record with the network, on the schedule in the fall while holding “Enlisted” to mid-season, even though he acknowledged “Dads” was still a work in progress.
“These guys are going to try to test a lot of boundaries. They are going to try to be equal-opportunity offenders. Do I think all the jokes right now are in calibration in the pilot?” Reilly said of “Dads” at the Television Critics Association press tour in January. “I don’t. But I can tell you right now, I have never seen a comedy in which all the jokes are in calibration. That’s the nature of comedy.”
The question for many critics was why “Enlisted,” which had a much stronger pilot–among other things, it did not rely on a heavy helping of racist jokes that would have induced eye-rolls on the Borscht Belt–had not been selected for a high-profile launch in September instead. “Dads” started out with 5.76 million viewers, but Reilly’s faith in the show has not helped it grow, either in critical respect or commercial prospects: Just 2.49 million tuned in for the most recent episode, which aired in February. “Enlisted” has not exactly bested those figures. Only 1.36 million people watched its most recent episode. But those figures invite some speculation on what might have happened if Fox had prioritized the show, rather than debuting it at a time of year that most television viewers still see as a storage space for lower-quality shows, and if it had aired “Enlisted” episodes in the order in which they were shot, preserving the continuity of the story.
At press time, Fox had not responded to a request for comment. But whatever the fate of “Enlisted” turns out to be, the show is a reminder that military viewers, in contrast to the Defense Department, cannot always get what they from Hollywood. It is one thing for “Man Of Steel” to tweak its depiction of the military to look modern and professional, or for “Captain Phillips” to give some work to off-duty Navy SEALs. But going up against the enormous complexities of the television programming calendar to save a nuanced, funny show about Army life is a heavier lift, no matter how Army Strong a dedicated fan base might be.