Networks at war: Popularity of military TV shows rise as quality falls

A montage of bullets flying through the air, military members barking commands, all done through the haze created by the sandy terrain of the Middle East. The scene closes with the narrator loudly announcing, “‘The Brave’ Mondays on NBC.” A quick flip of the channel would offer you a similar preview, but this time focusing on a team of Navy SEALs in “SEAL Team” on CBS. Another channel change could lead you to yet another show, “Valor” on the CW, that focuses on a team of Army helicopter pilots with a mystery surrounding their last mission.

All three of these military shows premiered on broadcast networks in the fall of this year to varying degrees of critical success. These three shows, in addition to History Channel’s “Six” that premiered earlier this year, have solidified the military drama as a trend in American television this year.

DePaul professor Nathan DeWitt, whose specific research area is rooted in Television and Media Studies, offers some insight into why these networks have produced military shows this year.

Walter Goggins in History Channel’s military show “Six” centered around the Navy SEAL Team Six.
(Photo courtesy of The History Channel)

“Military movies like ‘American Sniper’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ were hits,” he said. “Networks tend to look at what ideas are making other people money and then they do the same type of thing.  Last year it was time travel; this year it’s the military.”

In network television, shows are put into production nearly two years before they make it to air, which means that this trend of military dramas has been seen as part of the American zeitgeist for at least that long. One could even argue that militarism has been a facet of the American identity for much longer than that.

“Since 9/11, the specter of war is omnipresent in America,” DeWitt said.  “Whether it’s the War on Terror, North Korea or Russia, there seems to be a pervasive feeling (that) we are embattled… I see these shows as reflecting America’s addiction to militarism.”

This is not the first time that the military has been at the forefront of American television. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, military comedies were a staple of the television landscape, allowing the military to find its way into the everyday lives of American viewers.

Professor Alex Thimons earned his master’s and doctorate degrees from the Screen Cultures program in Northwestern University’s Department of Radio, Television, and Film and now teaches the history of television and radio at DePaul. When looking at this trend through a historical lens, a show like “M*A*S*H” comes to mind as one of the most successful shows of all time, but often the time in history that a show airs is just as important as the show itself.

“A better comparison [to today’s trend] might be the early 1980s and ‘The A-Team,’” Thimons said. “That show was about Vietnam War veterans wrongly accused of a crime, and working as mercenaries. In the conservative 1980s, during the Reagan administration, this show was seen as an attempt to recuperate the reputation of the American military after the Vietnam War.”

Just as that show attempted to skew the general opinion about the military in a certain direction, the same could be said for this year’s trend in highlighting the most elite members of the armed forces.

“(This trend) might say something about what network decision makers think is the American mindset,” Thimons said. “And that seems to be a desire for moral clarity, and clear heroes and villains.”

Although the specific mission of these programs is up for debate, the symbiotic relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon that makes these shows possible is more clear than ever before.

“The Pentagon and Hollywood have a long-standing relationship in which the former grants the latter access to information and state-of-the-art gear while the latter glamorizes the work of a soldier, violence and the theater of war,” DeWitt said.

Based on that, it becomes clear that shows and movies glamorizing the armed forces can be used as a tactic to control the public perception of the military.

“In my opinion, these shows are a huge part of the propaganda machine at the heart of the U.S.’s military industrial complex, seeking to emphasize the glory of war and minimize its ugliness,” DeWitt said. “They also serve to inspire enrollment in the armed forces.”

However, not only civilians who are unfamiliar with the real life trials of military action are part of the viewing population. Specialist John Chamberlin, a 40-year-old veteran from New Jersey, served in the United States Army from 1992-1999 as America faced the end of the Gulf War and left to relocate the Turkish refugees coming from Iraq. In his eyes, shows and movies depicting the military can be both good and bad. As a viewer, Chamberlin is able to relive his experiences and find some familiarity with the characters and situations.

“It’s what I did for so long that it intrigues me, and it’s relatable,” Chamberlin said. “Talking to regular people and trying to explain [the military] is hard to do, but if you see it on TV, it validates it.”

At the same time, while any representation might bring with it some validation, the actual content of the shows can be misleading to the general population.

“If it’s a documentary from National Geographic, it’s more beneficial because they have a learning aspect to it,” Chamberlin said. “But if it’s the shows on regular channels, it glamorizes it. In a way it makes you feel angry because you know it wouldn’t be like that, it’s kind of frustrating.”

In addition to that, as DeWitt stated, military programs are often used as a tool to inspire people to enlist in the military. But the misleading nature of the content of these shows complicates that notion.

“I think it gives some people a false image of what it’s going to be like, and they don’t realize it until after they enlisted,” said Chamberlin. “With the glamorization, it looks all great, but they don’t show you walking 25 miles up a mountain and stuff like that.”

While these shows depict the heroic actions on the field of duty, they rarely give the full picture of the toll war takes on a soldier, further misleading the public.

“If they throw ‘military’ on anything, they know they’ll get ratings, that’s why you see all these shows right now,” he said. “They’re just commercializing it which really doesn’t do anything for the armed forces. They’re commercializing service but aren’t looking at the back end of it, for instance when the veterans get home.”

These military dramas are most definitely a trend this year on TV but are unlikely to have any lasting impact in the grand scheme of television history.

“With so many scripted shows being made, it’s difficult to say that a group of them has any particular importance this soon after their premieres,” Thimons said. “My impression is that none of these shows are all that successful in the ratings so far.”

According to TV by the Numbers, “SEAL Team” is performing well for CBS with about 8.72 million viewers on the night it airs, making it the network’s second highest rated drama this year. However, they also report that “The Brave” and “Valor” are struggling to connect with NBC and the CW’s younger audiences with the two shows drawing in about six million viewers combined.

One of the largest influences on each shows success is the network it’s on, that consequently dictates the audience it is going to reach.

“‘SEAL Team’ is a hit for CBS with mostly older viewers, while ‘The Brave’ is struggling at NBC because the younger viewers of that network have less interest in the subject matter,” DeWitt said. “I don’t think ‘Valor’ is a good fit for the CW’s audience and I’d be surprised if it lasts longer than one season.”

DePaul sophomore Michala Leber, 19, offers some insight as to why younger viewers aren’t tuning in.

“It’s a lot easier to watch Netflix in your bed, on your own time and a lot of people don’t want to pay for cable,” she said.

Perhaps the ratings performance of these shows points to this fleeting moment in television. As a result of the networks’ perception of the views and opinions of the public, only time will tell if these shows and the heavy militarism they portray have accomplished their mission or simply missed the mark.