Lessons from Mormon TV denial of Playboy channel

When KSL-TV, the Mormon-owned NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City, decided not to carry “The Playboy Club" prime-time drama, the station took a stand for its values – and community choice in TV viewing.

Last week, KSL-TV, the Mormon-owned NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City, decided not to carry “The Playboy Club,” a slick prime-time drama about the 1960s nightclub run by Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner. KSL says the decision isn’t about the show’s content, which is likely to be no racier than the usual network fare, but is instead about branding. Playboy’s values and KSL’s values are opposed, they say, and they want everybody to know it.

KSL’s decision is proof that there is vitality in the longstanding affiliate system, which gives local station owners a say in which programs they decide to broadcast to their communities.

Media consolidation has given Americans a world where decisions are increasingly made by conglomerate owners in offices far away from the communities their decisions affect. Some conglomerates are as big as 50 stations, which means that one decision made to benefit the bottom line can end up impacting tens of millions of viewers. More consolidation means that values and local taste are less and less a part of the equation that determines what ends up on TV.

In recent years, media business consensus has declared the affiliate system passé or even obsolete in favor of the immensely profitable cable system, in which cable companies usually distribute whatever the central cable networks produce.

Whether or not “The Playboy Club” would offend Salt Lake City’s viewers, KSL’s decision to stick with its values in the face of NBC’s disapproval is admirable and courageous. No matter how profitable it may be for some, I, for one, do not want to live in a world where local communities have no say in what they watch on television.

Even in competition with the Internet, TV still dominates American entertainment. More Americans spend more time watching live TV than they spend watching anything else. What goes on TV doesn’t just profit the TV business; it helps shape the values and imaginations of the American people. To aim for the bottom line alone is to aim too low.

Bill Baker was president (now president emeritus) of WNET, the PBS flagship station in New York City, for 20 years. He is now a professor at the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University.

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