Joseph Cotto, 7/12/2016 [Archive]

USA Network's Programming Reflects America's Gloom

By Joseph Cotto

Did you tune in for television history?

Two days after the Fourth of July, one of the longest-running dramas on cable reached its end. USA Network's, "Royal Pains", lasted eight seasons, beginning in June 2009. The oft-lighthearted series focused on a concierge medical service to the beautiful people of coastal Long Island.

While set in the Hamptons, it was actually filmed along the Gold Coast (Jay Gatsby's stomping ground), featuring perhaps the most picturesque array of locations ever secured for an American show -- miniseries not included. Indeed, the Rockefeller/Vanderbilt/Astor-esque vibes were so palpable that one could easily overlook the Long Island Sound's dubious doubling for the Atlantic shoreline.

"Royal Pains", was about more than an unjustly disgraced doctor trying to rebuild credibility or his hotshot brother biting off more than any man can chew. It was the most enduring example of drama done in a highly unique fashion. This is referred to as the 'blue sky' technique.

It revolves around two words, both of which served as USA's catchphrase until recently: "Characters Welcome". Blue sky series featured not only strong, but compelling characters who were striving for a better future. They went about their lives under bright sunshine, in well-lit rooms, and inviting atmospheres.

Of course, the settings for each program were not necessarily, paradisiacal. That being, said, a conscious effort was made to avoid the outright gruesome and emphasize values of hope, hard work, solid relationships, and redemption. Essentially, blue sky dramas made for fantastic summer evenings.

Note the word 'made'.

When, "Royal Pains", debuted, it was an out-of-the-park ratings bonanza. Television industry insiders were pleasantly shocked. Beforehand, they thought a serial depicting white-collars serving the spectacularly wealthy might not run so well in the financial crisis's wake. Conventional wisdom was chucked on account of the show's smart writing, engaging leads, and soft-lens focus on how humans relate to each other.

Like any program,, "Royal Pains", had ups and downs, but never strayed from its foundational premise. The viewing public, however, proved another story. Nielsen claimed 5.9 million folks tuned in for the first season's finale, which USA hailed as record-smashing. By the close of the seventh season, Nielsen's numbers were far from the stuff of jubilation. Merely 1.57 million watched, and prospects were dim for a turnaround.

The problem was not with, "Royal Pains"; it endured longer than almost any other blue-sky show. The once-invulnerable, "Burn Notice", folded amid 2013, with, "Psych", on its heels. Two darker-blue sky shows were introduced for 2014, but these went nowhere. All in all, it was clear to USA executives that viewer tastes had radically changed.

"USA's qualitative research found that the national mood among the demographic that the network most covets ---- the span of the twentysomething millennials through the fortysomething Gen-Xers ---- is darker and grittier these days,", Variety's Cynthia Littleton reported.

Replacing, "Royal Pains", as USA's marquee offering is, "Mr. Robot," the popular techno-thriller whose sickly-looking lead character amounts to Julian Assange without the celebrity status or charisma., "Mr. Robot", is bleak as the day is long, more paranoid than Tony Montana on Colombian pure, and about as much of an escape from daily mayhem as the Chicago nightly news.

This is the sort of thing emerging audiences want, though, so USA honchos can hardly be scoffed at for choosing the path they did. They tried to keep skies blue for as long as possible, but the downward trend for their entire sunshine lineup was ultimately impossible to reverse. Just one blue sky drama remains --, Suits, -- and its days appear numbered. , ,

Such an occurrence speaks to the ever-more-disharmonious tone of our national dialogue, along with the hardening personal sentiments which fuel this devolution. Reuters says that not even one quarter of Americans are satisfied with their country's direction. 64 percent believe society is circling the drain.

Said dissatisfaction has made for a jarring turn in television programming. What it is primed to do in the real world stands downright frightening.

Certain individuals look at the ongoing presidential race as an anathema to American values. Truthfully, it is a reflection of what these values have become. The demise of, "Royal Pains", merely punctuates the gloom of 21st, century American life.

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Copyright 2016 Joseph Cotto, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at joseph.f.cotto@gmail.com.

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