As the broadcast networks touted their new seasons last year, they promoted projects that investigated hot-button issues from a socially progressive perspective. Fox’s “Shots Fired” explored the fallout of a fictional police shooting. ABC’s “When We Rise” chronicled the history of the gay-rights movement. NBC’s “The Carmichael Show” returned by building critical buzz with its bold takes on issues in the black community, and it would go on to air a controversial episode in which the “n-word” would be uttered unedited.
“Shots Fired” and “When We Rise” ended up ratings flops. “The Carmichael Show” was canceled in June.
What changed between the run-up to last season and now is Donald Trump. The presidential election took place in November, just as network programming executives’ attention shifted from fall launches to 2017-18 development. Those execs looked to the socially conservative voters turned on by Trump’s message condemning a dishonest media and corrupt culture and wondered what they might want to watch on television.
One apparent answer: tales of military heroism. This fall will see three ensemble dramas about American men and women in uniform premiere on broadcast networks. Each is particular in structure and character. All three are meant to appeal to audiences who are perceived as being underserved.
“There’s something to the fact that when a Republican president gets elected, maybe folks who are programming networks think there may be more of an appetite for military shows,” says “Valor” creator Kyle Jarrow.
“Valor,” which will premiere this fall on the CW, tells the story of an elite unit of helicopter pilots and the fallout from a failed mission. CBS’ “SEAL Team” follows a group of Navy SEALs through their personal and professional lives. NBC’s “The Brave” focuses on a unit of special-forces operatives executing dangerous missions around the world.
|“The philosophical and human challenges that can come up are extreme.”|
“People obviously support our troops,” Jarrow says. “I think that’s a thing that just about everyone feels.” But even though an all-volunteer armed forces has been fighting a seemingly endless war against terrorism on multiple fronts for more than a decade and a half, many viewers don’t have people in their immediate families or social circles who serve or have served.
“We live in a country, I think, where a smaller percentage of Americans than ever serve in the military,” Jarrow says. “There’s a lot of Americans who simply don’t know anybody who served.” Those people, he adds, are removed from the military experience. “Having television shows that can be a window into that, if it gives Americans an idea of what that kind of service is like, I think that’s really important. Regardless of the reason that these shows are getting on the air now, I think that really is a positive thing.”
Dean Georgaris, creator of “The Brave,” doesn’t believe that a lack of preexisting connection between many viewers and the military hinders those viewers’ ability to connect with shows about military personnel. Instead he likens the genre to others that have proven successful throughout television history.
“One of the things that I think is appealing about military shows in general, the same as is appealing about a good medical show or a cop show, the stakes are life and death,” Georgaris says. “The philosophical and human challenges that can come up are extreme. They’re very fertile ground for writers because you have these things and you have these tough questions and you can put your characters through things.”
Ben Cavell, executive producer for “SEAL Team,” likens the ability of military shows to mine personal and professional drama to that of series such as “ER.”
“It’s a workplace show,” Cavell says. “We’ve all been in workplaces. We’ve all had to rely on colleagues or found that we couldn’t rely on colleagues. In a way this is just a crucible where the stakes are turned way up. These people are incredibly trained, but they’re still human beings working together, laughing together, living together.”
|NBC’s “The Brave” and the CW’s “Valor,” below, are on the fall sked.|
A military backdrop potentially plays to sought-after demographics. According to a 2016 Defense Department report, 40.1% of all active-duty and reserve U.S. military personnel are age 25 or younger. Those 35 and younger make up 76.2% of the military.
“People in the military tend to retire when they’re in their 40s. It really is a younger demographic of people,” Jarrow says. “So many folks in the military are young — in their 20s, early 30s, and are being put in these incredibly dangerous, intense situations at such a young age. How does that change you? How do you live your life when that’s what you’re going through?”
For programmers looking to appeal to Trump voters, series built around military protagonists also offer potential inroads in red states. According to the Defense Department, 43.5% of 2013 military enlistees came from the South — where Trump won in 14 of 16 states. The Northeast, where Trump won in only one of nine states, accounted for only 13.7% of enlistees.
But for the new series “The Brave,” “Seal Team,” and “Valor” to succeed with the young people and red-staters that could boost their networks’ audiences, they will need to ring true. The authenticity stakes are raised by the serious nature of the real-world work done by the military.
“Meeting these guys and hearing their story, you really want to do right by them,” says Cavell. “I think people generally are aware that these guys exist and aware that they are at this point doing the huge bulk of the anti-terrorist work that’s being done all around the world.”
But those servicemen and women’s stories have not often been told on television before now, which increases the pressure even more.
“They get told perhaps by very high-level people — officers, politicians,” Cavell says. “And they get told in stories and newspapers by one person or another for PR gain of various kinds. But who’s telling the story of the guys who are actually kicking in doors?”