Tuesday 23rd May 2017,
Televisual

The Changing Economics of the TV Abortion

Thanks to Early Bird Catches the Worm for linking!

Is abortion no longer taboo for TV?” That’s the question Entertainment Weekly asked last year on the heels of abortions by major characters on Friday Night Lights (Madison Burge’s Becky Sproles) and Mad Men (Christina Hendricks’ Joan Holloway).

If this week’s penultimate episode of Private Practice is any indication, the answer is yes. But it has little to do with political change and everything to do with the changing economics of scripted television.

God Bless the Child” started with a women coming to Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) complaining of cramps and nausea. She’d had an abortion a few weeks prior and thought something was wrong. Turns out the doctor was a quack and she’s still pregnant. She’s at 19 weeks, meaning she has a fetus (it has arms and lungs, etc.), but she can legally get a late-term abortion. The patient, Patty, works too much, has no money and a deadbeat boyfriend; she doesn’t feel up to raising a child. Naomi Bennett (Audra McDonald), the show’s staunch pro-lifer who nearly abandoned her principles when her teenage daughter got pregnant, tries to talk Patty out of it and almost succeeds. Addison is irked by Naomi’s intruding and moralizing to a patient about a legal and medical choice. In the end, Patty decides to have the late-term (D&E) abortion, among the most controversial medical procedures in the country and lightning rod issue for pro-lifers. What’s more, pro-life Naomi actually comforts Patty during the procedure.

So, with Private Practice joining Friday Night Lights, Mad Men and Degrassi (PP, like Secret Life of an American Teenager and Sons of Anarchy, has flirted with it before), is abortion safe for TV?

It might look like it, on its face. As EW said last fall: “That there was so little uproar around the episodes proves we may be ready for a real discussion that television can lead — if it so chooses.”

All of these shows have treated abortion as a choice to be made based on life circumstances and personal beliefs. They often present a pro-life perspective — Sons of Anarchy was the most artful, juxtposing a possible abortion with the father, many miles away, searching for his lost son — but they all end pro-choice-friendly, even if no abortion has taken place. (We can talk about that in the comments).

All this is good, but it has little to do with changing American attitudes on abortion.

In fact, Gallup found that in 2009 and 2010, after years of stability, more Americans identified as pro-life than pro-choice — and it was surprisingly not correlated with traditional indicators like age.

What’s really going on? Ratings!

Like almost every network show, Private Practice‘s ratings are down. As more and more networks start producing scripted shows on cable, individual shows, especially for the Big Four, are losing market share. Ratings are down for the broadcast networks, and up for individual cable series. Broadcast and cable are meeting in the middle, but because of the volume of production, no scripted show is getting 20 million viewers aged 18-49 anymore.

This means two things: 1) writers have more leeway to take risks, especially if those risks generate buzz and ratings. PP is no stranger to this, the episodes where Violet (Amy Brenneman) gets her baby cut out of her by a psycho patient and Charlotte (KaDee Strickland) gets brutally raped both juiced up ratings and brought viewers back. PP has been particularly adept at using controversies and tabloid-fodder storylines around women’s issues to generate enough buzz and keep the show going (it has been renewed for a fifth season).

This also means that 2) since no one’s watching, no one cares except the fans. The liberal-leaning audiences of Private Practice, Mad Men, and Friday Night Lights, all of whom are highly rated by Democrats, can handle pro-choice storylines. None of those shows crack 10 million viewers (total) anymore. We’re talking about a sliver of the American population. The pro-lifers are watching Dancing with the Stars and Two and a Half Men. If you don’t watch Private Practice, did you even hear about the abortion?

We’re many decades away from Maude, which aired its abortion episode on CBS, then one among three major networks, before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. That was daring. Now, with the frontier already divvied up between dozens of channels producing shows for untold niches, we’re just preaching to many choirs.

The good news? Daring storytelling from the broadcasters and networks like AMC, HBO and FX. The bad news? Fewer people are watching. There’s just too much choice.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

5 Comments

  1. Aymar Jean Christian May 15, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    PS – I should mention that the show did right by the issue. In the end, Addison convinces Naomi to support the patient after noting how so few doctors before abortions in America, which is why pro-lifers protesting outside clinics is so politically precarious. Addison feels in her gut that performing the abortion is, if not wrong, unseemly, but knows it’s not her choice. This acknowledges what even some stridently feminist doctors will say: when you perform the procedure, it can feel morally gray. Acknowledging this is smart and invites Naomi to get over her own biases and allow another woman to feel some comfort during an emotionally difficult experience.

    The episode lets Naomi give a very strong and only slightly heavy-handed argument for keeping the baby, and weighs that against other very intelligent arguments for allowing the patient to go through with a late-term procedure (Sheldon has a good line where he says the fetus is a life, but “not a biologically independent life,” an interesting and medically accurate distinction).

    ‘Private Practice’ is often melodramatic, and this episode was no exception, but even at its most soap operatic, it remains smart and sophisticated.

  2. Brandy Monk-Payton May 16, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    I think this economics of abortion in scripted drama is also interesting to think about in relation to current reality television programming. Laurie Ouellette is currently writing about the idea of TV as birth control, neoliberalism, and the growing crop of teen pregnancy and motherhood shows. It’s interesting how these dramatic series are using abortion as spectacle for ratings…and Rhimes has taken it a step further with both PP and Grey’s currently addressing the spectrum regarding the politics of motherhood with each show’s leading ladies (Addison, Meredith’s fertility issues, Callie/Arizona, looks like Christina will–again–for the season finale) I wonder how all of these iterations of motherhood are informing each other in unexpected ways.

  3. Aymar Jean Christian May 17, 2011 at 11:07 am

    It’s true I don’t talk about reality, and those “teen mom”/”lots of kids” shows are very popular! I’d be interested in knowing if viewers of one watch the other. My guess is the audience for the reality shows is younger, except for the ‘Real Housewives,’ which is a whole other issue.

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