The Business of Controversy – Risk v. Reward

UPDATE: Family Guy Actress with Down Syndrome Responds to Palin

America is no stranger to controversy. From presidential sex scandals to profanity-laced, drunken celebrity rants, we have grown accustomed to the inevitability of controversy in our society. While many choose to run from it, others embrace it with open arms. While it is clearly never beneficial to have law-breaking scandals like those Enron and WorldCom suffered through, sometimes controversy means big business.

Living in what some might call an overly politically correct society, many individuals and businesses aren’t willing to take the risk that a buzz-generating controversy invovles. Tell that to Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and Comedy Central anchor Stephen Colbert.

They’ve figured out the same thing dozens of media organizations have: Looking for more eyeballs? Inject a heavy dose of Sarah Palin. Perhaps the most controversial political figure of the last decade, any mention of Palin is guaranteed to garner the attention of an audience. And that’s exactly what they did. During last Sunday’s episode of Family Guy on Fox, MacFarlane capitalized on the controversy surrounding Palin’s defense of the “r-word”. In the episode, a character is on a date with a teenaged girl with Down Syndrome and awkwardly inquires about her parents, to which she responds “my dad is an accountant and my mother is the former governer of Alaska.” This witty quip is breath-takingly risky at first-glance, but in context, the quote actually pushes a message that individuals with Down Syndrome are no different than the rest of us.

Less subtle than Family Guy’s sharp reference to Palin is Stephen Colbert’s lambasting monologue from his Feb. 8, 2010 show. Rather than a feeble attempt to condense the content of the clip, I will let the original video speak for itself.

Stephen Colbert on Sarah Palin

Aside from the obvious comedic value to the viewers, references to controversial topics like these serve a larger purpose for the organizations that risk their reputation to broadcast them. First and foremost, it gets people talking. Not only will the viewers want to share their experiences with their peers (and inevitably, the world, thanks to twitter/facebook), but the shows will enjoy dramatically increased news coverage. Dozens of media outlets dissected the two shows and the impact of the episodes might have on politics and popular culture, providing their respective networks with plenty of free publicity. The question here now becomes: is all publicity good publicity? Are you willing to risk the reputation of the network for what will only be temporary increased coverage?

These questions were weighed and deliberated by the shot-callers at Fox and Comedy Central, as well as members of the FCC, and at the end of the day, the segments got the green light. As in all business decisions, it’s about weighing risk versus reward. In these two cases, the potential risk was outweighed by the reward of capitalizing on a hot-button topic already flooding the headlines. As for the potential consequences, it looks like the laws are on their sides.

Fox’s “Family Guy” and Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” are currently enjoying bumps in the ratings and large spikes in the amount of news coverage they are receiving, so did the shows accomplish their goals? We’re talking about it, aren’t we?

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About Michael Dossett

Inactive since Sept. 2011

Posted on March 28, 2010, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Sarah Palin is hands down the world’s biggest dumb@$$. She disregards fact and thrives on fiction. She is an absolute fraud, and I applaud Family Guy for pointing out her pure idiocy (albeit indirectly). It generates buzz about just how shockingly inept and incompetent Sarah Palin really is. I know this isn’t a political site…but damn.

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