Writing earlier this month about the premiere of NBC’s controversial show, “The Book of Daniel,” the Nashville Scene‘s Liz Garrigan observed, “Something altogether anticlimactic happened … God did not smite Middle Tennessee or cast into stone those viewers who find intriguing the character of a fallible Vicodin-addicted clergyman.”

Maybe not. But the market sure did. “Daniel” hath been smote.

NBC announced yesterday that it has canceled the show amid a torrent of protest from mostly religious viewers outraged by its caricature of Jesus Christ and the panoply of dysfunction masquerading as the family of the troubled Episcopal priest: his dipsomaniacal wife, gay Republican son, and his adopted son who happens to be having sex with the priest’s drug-dealing daughter.

According to one report, more than 650,000 individuals e-mailed NBC to log their protest of “Daniel.” Sponsors and local affiliates led the way by dropping the show or refusing to carry it outright. Nashville’s local affiliate decided to offset the offense by allowing televangelist Pat Robertson to purchase an hour of airtime for a show about “the modern-day power of our miracle-working God.” (That’s what had Garrigan’s goat; she called that “outrageous.”)

Given the groundswell of protest, the show lasted only three weeks before NBC defrocked the comedic drama entirely. The decision, according to Donald E. Wildmon of the American Family Association, “shows the average American that he doesn’t have to simply sit back and take the trash being offered on TV, but he can get involved and fight back with his pocketbook.”

I can appreciate Wildmon’s optimism, but I’m not so sure he’s right. Here’s why: “The Book of Daniel” was the broadcast-television-lineup equivalent of a welfare queen.

Let me unravel that idea. Whether it’s a TV show or a bad government policy, usually the only way to mount a sustained and effective effort to overturn or reverse something comes when people can focus on a particular outrage and ride it into the ground. The problems of welfare were manifest as early as the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s and the image of the “welfare queen” that anything happened to fix them. Outrage over the welfare queen finally coalesced anti-welfare sentiment into a force substantial enough that it could pressure lawmakers to reform welfare. “The Book of Daniel” is the same.

Plenty of TV shows depict characters, sets and events that are offensive to the same people offended by “Daniel” – just not so overwhelmingly offensive that they get people riled up and focused enough to wage a publicity war. Considering the cost and trouble of mounting a boycott or staging a protest, it’s much easier to simply gripe about odious material during the commercials. And so that’s what most do.

You can see the problem here. While welfare reform did some good, it hasn’t been all that satisfying in the long run. Just think about the main motive of the people leading welfare reform: They wanted limited government. Welfare reform was only part of that picture. The real goal has not yet materialized (and isn’t likely to do so given current trends).

I may be wrong, but I think the cancellation of “Daniel” will end up being a similar disappointment. And for the same basic reason.

The real goal for Wildmon is to end “trash” in general, not this “trash” in particular. But protests and angry e-mails won’t accomplish that goal.

Most of the anti-“Daniel” contingent are not activists like Wildmon. They are average folks with jobs and families. The demands of everyday life are too many to sustain the efforts of full-time activists – especially since millions of people who might be offended by a show like “Daniel” will still tune into shows that are slightly less offensive and think little about it. They require something like the welfare queen, something extremely unpleasant that can provoke forceful but brief attention. When it comes to politics, policy and protest, the activist is a marathon runner – everyone else is a short-distance sprinter.

This has important ramifications for the culture war. The most important one, it seems to me, is that culture warriors should never take too much comfort in victories like this recent one. The moment they win, the army goes home. And while the army is trucking children to school, balancing the checkbook and clocking in and out of the plant, the market is busy delivering more of what people actually seem to want – that is, more shows that are just slightly less offensive to religious scruples than “The Book of Daniel.”

Markets are mirrors, and they don’t often lie. If they tell the truth about people’s unwillingness to support a show as outrageous as “Daniel,” then they also tell very unsettling truths about people’s real commitments and priorities about so much more on the cultural landscape. And that means the culture warriors have a lot more work to do.


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