With ‘MILF Manor’ And ‘Power Slap,’ David Zaslav’s Basic Cable Networks Are Scraping The Bottom Of The Programming Barrel

When TLC announced that they’d be releasing a show called MILF Manor, I couldn’t put it on my list of shows I wanted to review fast enough. Why? Because any cable network that is willing to make a show that will be immediately compared to 30 Rock’MILF Island knows that it’s putting on a trainwreck of a show that’s there to just attract buzz and eyeballs.

Then the show debuted on January 15. As soon as the show’s twist was revealed — that the women will be dating each other’s sons — I immediately regretted all of that enthusiasm. If that idea weren’t revolting enough, the producers of the series decided to completely rip away any pretense of class with their first challenge: The moms have to put on blindfolds and feel the chests and abs of the shirtless young guys. The object? Identify the pecs and abs that belong to their adult sons.

This was on a channel that, it must be mentioned, started life in the 1980s as “The Learning Channel.” The people who named the network back then likely didn’t think that, 40 years later, it would show mature women learning how to feel up their sons.

Three days later, TBS debuted a show called Power Slap: Road To The Title. Created by UFC president Dana White, it’s essentially a series of people literally hauling back and slapping the shit out of each other. Think I’m kidding? Watch this trailer:

There isn’t any more to the show than that. Maybe you see some human interest segment about a particular contestant, but for the most part, you see someone throwing a slap and the face of the slappee being distorted in super-slow motion. In the first episode alone, three defenseless contestants were knocked out cold, all for an alleged payday of just $2,000.

Just what in the name of John Landgraf is going on here? It seems like cable networks have thrown up their hands in the face of streaming competition, greenlighting just about anything they can think of that will attract people, even if the only reason people are attracted to it is because of how repulsive the idea of the show is.

Are they really that desperate? Well, there are several factors at play that indicate that, yes, cable networks are really scraping the bottom of the barrel for programming that turns heads.

First, it’s no coincidence that both TBS and TLC are owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, the company led by CEO cost cutter David Zaslav that’s purging costs (and hard-earned prestige) at a record pace since WB and Discovery Networks merged in 2022. The Turner networks — namely, CNN, TBS and TNT, which I will heretofore refer to as the T-Nets — have been hit especially hard; shows like the latest iteration of Miracle Workers and The Lazarus Project have been delayed. The T-Nets have even pushed back The Cube, an unscripted game show that doesn’t involve people slapping each other. Yes, Power Slap was also delayed, but only for a week, and only because — we kid you not — White was caught on camera slapping his wife on New Year’s Eve.

The T-Nets seem to have more faith in a state of Nevada-sanctioned slapping tournament than they have in either of their upcoming scripted shows or an actually-engaging game show that takes a skill other than the ability to slap or take a slap. Then again, Power Slap is pretty cheap to produce, with a podium, some flashing lights and contestants who may be getting paid a nominal appearance fee, if they’re getting anything. White defends it by saying, “If you don’t fucking like it, don’t watch it. No one is asking you to watch it. Oh, you’re disgusted by it? Watch The Voice.

What is TLC’s excuse for MILF Manor, then? The network is rife with barrel-bottom-scraping reality programming, from Sister Wives and its offshoots to the 90 Day Fiancé universe. They have aired shows that have actively destroyed families, and they can’t seem to quit another family even after a member went to prison on child pornography charges. None of those shows have particularly high budgets.

But, for some reason, the first episode of MILF Manor made all of those shows feel like Masterpiece by comparison. Just the thought of watching as adult sons watch their moms making out with guys their age, and then seeing the moms intervening when one of the fellow moms tries to get in the pants of their sons, gave us a sickening feeling. How did these people not know that this would be the twist? And how desperate are these contestants that they didn’t immediately leave after the twist was revealed or when, say, they were subjected to being groped by their own mothers?

Just typing that sentence sends up pieces of the lunch I just finished, but the folks at TLC knew that the lowest-common-denominator aspect of the show would turn heads. “We considered calling in a dozen other [names]. We knew this thing would be controversial. But that’s exactly why we chose it,” Kathleen Finch, Chairman and Chief Content Officer of WBD’s U.S. Networks Group, told Deadline about MILF Manor. “We like causing attention.”

MILF MANOR TLC DISCOVERY PLUS REVIEW
Photo: TLC

Yep, it caused attention, all right; but do they really want the kind of attention where The New Yorker calls the show “a May-December dating show haunted by the spectre of incest”? If Finch is to be believed, the fact that it got a New Yorker writeup to begin with is worth having their network associated with the word “incest.”

But is this the start of a trend? We’re not sure; what we do know is that scripted fare on basic cable has been on the decline for a number of years, and much of it has been replaced by reality fare that is designed to get as much attention as possible, even if that attention is for all the wrong reasons. What that will likely do is accelerate the number of cord-cutters, who would rather watch classy reality fare like Dated & Related and FBOY Island on streaming.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.


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