Policy

No Turning Back

11/10/2006 7:08 PM Eastern

In the season premiere of FX's Nip/Tuck this fall, womanizing plastic surgeon Dr. Christian Troy doubles his pleasure.

In an enthusiastic and athletic romp, his bare butt in full view, Troy beds a mother and her daughter at the same time.

Over on music-video network Fuse, viewers can tune into the second season of Pants-Off Dance-Off. Show contestants compete for cash by stripping off their clothes, until they're buck-naked, dancing to their favorite tune. The X-rated parts of their bodies are blurred out.

On VH1's hit Flavor of Love 2 this summer, one of the women vying for rapper Flavor Flav's attention has an accident and defecates on the floor of a mansion, albeit off camera. Elsewhere, an episode of MTV2's animated Where My Dogs At? depicted a Snoop Dogg look-alike walking two black women on leashes and then cleaning up their poop.

In the premium-cable corner, Showtime's new fall comedy from Damon Wayans, The Underground, has sketches featuring a woman's talking genitalia (titled “The Real Vagina Monologues”) and “balls-out” jeans. HBO's now-cancelled sitcom Lucky Louie had actors graphically simulating having sex, masturbating in a closet and using the “F” word.

Media-watchdog groups — such as the Parents Television Council, the American Family Association and Industry Ears — have been fighting against racy programming, like FX's white-hot hit Nip/Tuck, for years now.

Foul Flavor?
NETWORK: VH1
SHOW: Flavor of Love 2
CONTENT IN QUESTION: Woman vying for Flavor Flav's affection defecates on the floor.
THE ISSUE: Does the show denigrate women and perpetuate racial stereotypes?

But this year, the war over televised indecency took a different turn. A new group of constituents — TV critics, advertisers and TV fans alike — chimed in to publicly complain about how far cable content has gone. Some claimed that a handful of basic-cable networks shattered old boundaries about what can be depicted on the small screen.

Whether or not new TV standards have been established, long-time critics aren't happy about where the bar has now been set. And they want some changes.

The PTC has a five-year plan to crusade for a la carte offerings on cable, arguing that consumers shouldn't be forced to get networks like FX, and its edgy content, as part of a basic-cable subscription. To try to tame TV programming, the PTC has employed a strategy of targeting advertisers and pressuring them to take their commercials off specific shows on channels like FX.

Chafing at such tactics, cable programmers proudly point out that some of the programs the PTC objects to are huge hits for cable, with millions of viewers. This year, Nip/Tuck is basic cable's No. 1 ratings champ among adults 18 to 49, averaging 2.8 million of them, while Flavor of Love 2 is No. 2, with 2.4 million. And the VH1 show's Oct. 15 finale drew a whopping 7.5 million viewers and a 5.4 rating.

Such viewers are free to turn the dial if they don't like what they see on the screen, and they don't need the PTC or anyone else dictating to them, according to cable executives.

IN ONE DIRECTION

Still, the PTC has been undaunted and relentless in its campaign against FX. Just last month, at News Corp.'s annual shareholders' meeting, a PTC representative complained at length to Rupert Murdoch about all three of FX's original dramas, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me and The Shield.

PTC chairman Leon Weil charged that Nip/Tuck “has featured scenes of misogyny, sexual violence, incest, pedophilia and necrophilia,” adding “this is what News Corp. is forcing millions of people to pay for as part of their basic-cable subscription.”

Weil also cited an episode of FX's Rescue Me that aired this summer that featured spousal rape. The scene sparked a small firestorm of controversy and several advertisers, including T-Mobile, pulled ads from the drama.

As part of that brouhaha, some TV critics and even fans of Rescue Me — only a minority, according to FX officials — condemned the episode as over the top, as far as being offensive. The flap drew national press attention, with stories in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press.

Shock Tactics
NETWORK: FX
SHOW: Nip/Tuck
CONTENT IN QUESTION: Group sex involving a mother and daughter, bestiality, organ theft, nudity, coarse language.
THE ISSUE: Is the show trying to ramp up its sex-shock quotient to drive ratings?

“Controversial content only moves in one direction, and that's to constantly challenge the boundaries of the media form and the mores of the American people,” said John Rash, senior vice president and director of media negotiations for advertising agency Campbell Mithun.

“And particularly on FX and Nip/Tuck, and in programs such as The Shield, basic cable is significantly more aggressive than in previous years,” he added. “I'm not even being damning about it. I'm just observing more than anything.”

VYING FOR ATTENTION

Cable programmers — now vying for viewer attention against cutting-edge, Internet-delivered video content, as well as their traditional rivals — are under more pressure than ever to break through and grab consumers' attention.

“I don't think there's any question that the cable networks are trying to become edgier, and I think they're operating under an assumption — which by the way, I don't agree with necessarily — that the audiences want edgier fare,” said DePauw University communications professor Jeff McCall.

In October, TV Guide chided Nip/Tuck, and gave the drama a “Jeer” for “reaching stomach-turning new depths.” Here's why: An episode where Melissa Gilbert, former star of Little House on the Prairie, engages in sexual activity with her dog — who then chews off her nipple.

A variety of cable-network officials, including those at FX, scoff at the premise that TV shows, particularly those on basic cable, are any edgier or push boundaries further this year than they've been during the past few years.

According to one cable-network executive who declined to be identified, basic cable has actually been more conservative and sensitive in terms of its content because of Washington's threat to set indecency standards for the medium, as lawmakers reacted to the Janet Jackson “Nipplegate” incident. Cable networks have also been careful about content to avoid turning off sponsors in a tough ad market, the official said.

Family Values
NETWORK: HBO
SHOW: Lucky Louie
CONTENT IN QUESTION: Lead characters simulate sexual intercourse, coarse language.
THE ISSUE: Should a show using the traditional sitcom format depict sex, and have characters that masturbate and use the “F” word?

FX's original-programming strategy for its dramas has been in place for years, and it's a flat-out fallacy to say the network's gone out of its way to push the envelope this year, according to John Landgraf, FX's president and general manager.

“If you looked at The Shield pilot, you would see that actually the boundaries — if they've moved at all — have moved a little bit back towards less edginess since then, four and a half years ago,” he said, referring to the gritty series in which the protagonist, Los Angeles Police Det. Vic Mackey, murders another cop in the first episode.

“But they [boundaries] certainly have not moved forward,” Landgraf said. “They just haven't. … I don't think they've moved for cable in general.”

VH1 executive vice president of original programming and production Michael Hirschorn, who has been with the music network since 2001, agreed with Landgraf.

“I have not seen the lines [in terms of content] changing,” Hirschorn said. “Certainly, cable has felt a bit more risqué than [broadcast] network, but you're certainly seeing network catching up quickly. And as far as we're concerned, our standards have not changed in any appreciable way in the time I've been here.”

Nonetheless, there are media buyers, TV writers and academics who argue that it's apparent that cable is in fact pushing the envelope more than ever these days — despite the denials from FX officials.

“I don't believe any reasonable person can believe that PR spin,” said PTC executive director Tim Winter, who'll become the group's president next year.

For example, Winter noted that although The Shield debuted with “gritty, edgy violence” in 2002, it didn't have the “incestuous necrophilia” depicted in an episode of Nip/Tuck last year.

Several media buyers and TV writers said that a virtual arms race has developed in terms of cable networks trying to grab viewer attention. Cutting-edge programming, and the buzz it creates, makes a cable network stand out in a 500-channel world.

“It needs to be edgy to gain awareness,” said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vice president of Starcom Entertainment, the entertainment-marketing unit of Starcom MediaVest Group.

And TV networks have to take that content a little bit further each year, as the threshold gets higher and higher to grab a viewer's, especially a younger audience's, attention, some TV observers claim.

SENSITIVITIES CHANGE

When NYPD Blue debuted on ABC in 1993, its depiction of nudity was controversial and turned off advertisers, according to Melissa Caldwell, the PTC's senior director of programs.

“It established a precedent, and it got viewers comfortable with the idea that now it's OK to show naked buttocks on TV,” she said. “It's sort of like a drug, in that in order to get the same fix for viewers, networks have to up the ante every time and make it a little bit stronger and a little bit more graphic.

“It just goes to show that people's sensibilities and sensitivities change, and over time you get inured to certain kinds of content,'' she said.

Just look at the graphic police-procedural shows now on the air, Rash said. “There's a series of serial-killing dramas, which [have content that] would have been an R-rated movie a generation ago, that are now on primetime television,” he said, referring to hit shows like top-rated CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its spinoffs, which graphically and gleefully depict gore.

Boogie In the Buff
NETWORK: Fuse
SHOW: Pants-Off Dance-Off
CONTENT IN QUESTION: Contestants drop all their clothes as part of a dance competition.
THE ISSUE: Is a naked The Gong Show, albeit pixelated, really television's dumbest show?

Last month, the PTC voiced a new concern: that edgy content from cable, albeit in a somewhat watered-down version, is now finding its way onto broadcast through syndication. That means that shows such as HBO's Sex and the City and FX's The Shield are reaching wider audiences, and may be airing in earlier time slots when children can see them, according to the PTC.

For their part, cable-network executives say that they're just continuing to give viewers, particularly young adults, exactly what they want: Programming that's “really original and really outrageous,” as Landgraf put it — fare that couldn't appear on most broadcast TV.

Viewers have voted with their remotes for Rescue Me, The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Flavor of Love 2, network officials said.

FX's three primetime dramas have also won many critical accolades, taking home Golden Globe and Emmy awards.

“We put three shows on the air that are generally acclaimed to be three of the best shows in all of television — pay, broadcast and basic cable,” Landgraf said.

So when “a small minority of people raises a hue and cry. … Then, all of a sudden, you reduce what this network stands for and who we are down to controversy,” Landgraf said. “I think that's deeply unfair. It's not only unfair, it's just inaccurate. In fact, we do support creative freedom, and we support it very, very vociferously, and we support it even when it's unpopular.”

At FX and VH1, the content-monitoring standards and practices departments have been working under the same guidelines for years, according to Landgraf and Hirschorn. Under those rules, there are things viewers will never see or hear on their cable networks, like actual sex, full frontal nudity or the “F” word, both executives said.

Fox Cable Networks vice president of standards and practices Darlene Tipton's job is to keep FX programming within certain guidelines, which she says haven't changed. It's not to put the kibosh on storylines that writers want to pursue.

“There are going to be people who don't like the storylines,” Tipton said. “If we're going to knock out a viable storyline because some people don't like it, that's censorship. And that's not what we're here for.”

Since 2002, with The Shield's debut, FX's strategy has been to produce original scripted shows that strive for “excellence and quality in the context of adult TVMA-rated programming, which is programming in the final hour of primetime,” namely 10 p.m., according to Landgraf. That content is clearly labeled as unsuitable for those under 17.

RESCUE THIS

It's that 10 p.m. block that this year put FX at the center one of the most spirited debates about the boundaries for basic-cable content.

Rescue Me, about heroic New York firefighters with disastrous personal lives, has been not only a critics' darling since its debut, but also a ratings hit. It ended this season, its third, averaging 3 million total viewers, up 7% from its prior season, and garnering a 2.38 household rating, up 4%.

But the June 20 installment in which Denis Leary's character, Tommy Gavin, forced himself on his estranged wife, Janet, drew some angry reaction from devoted fans of the show and the ire of some critics, including those for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Daily News.

Marital Relations
NETWORK: FX
SHOW: Rescue Me
CONTENT IN QUESTION: Denis Leary's character forces himself on his estranged wife, who winds up enjoying the act.
THE ISSUE: Was it rape, and did the show “jump the shark,” or go too far, by including this scene.

Rescue Me has crossed a troubling line,” the Tribune's Maureen Ryan wrote.

Part of the objection was that Gavin's wife, in the middle of the “rape,” succumbs and appears to lay back and enjoy the act. Gavin walks out of the room afterward with a smirk.

“That was just a huge topic all summer long: Did Rescue Me go too far?” said Matt Roush, the critic at TV Guide. “It alienated some of its most ardent fans and the critical base. There were critics who turned on the show. I didn't, because I thought it [the rape scene] was part and parcel of the fact that everybody on that show was screwed up, including the women.”

Leary, who had an Emmy nomination this year, and Landgraf defended the scene and its relevance. Rescue Me co-creator Peter Tolan even went on a TV-fan web message board to chat about the scene, where he got a somewhat hostile reception.

“Even within the more-aggressive boundaries of basic cable, controversy can erupt with a loyal fan base who is used to this more-aggressive content,” Campbell Mithun's Rash said.

Landgraf described the controversial scene as “a tiny, tiny little mote” in the overall story­line of Gavin and his estranged wife, one that has to be taken in context.

It is in perfect keeping with the “wildly dysfunctional” relationship between the pair, with the act being Gavin's revenge on his wife for sleeping with his brother, according to Landgraf.

THE EFFECTS OF FILTH

The debate over FX's programming continued with the new season of Nip/Tuck, a series that explores the theme of society's view on beauty and aging. Starting with its fourth-season debut Sept. 5, Nip/Tuck's sexually provocative storylines raised the eyebrows of a number of TV critics.

“That first episode, even I had to write that I thought it was too filthy,” TV Guide's Roush said. “I thought it was off-putting, the stuff with the mother and daughter, the dialog that came out of their mouths. It was just filthy, and it doesn't need to go that far, but then that's the show's franchise.”

Tim Goodman, TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, lauded FX for usually getting the mix right in terms of boundary-pushing — with “the glaring exception” being Nip/Tuck.

Talking Too Far?
NETWORK: Showtime
SHOW: The Underground
CONTENT IN QUESTION: Edgy sketches include Damon Wayans “Real Vagina Monologues,” featuring a woman's talking genitalia, and a “balls-out jeans” bit. Both sketches are anatomically correct.
THE ISSUE: TV critics pan the fare for being raunchy, but even far worse, just not funny.

“It's both a matter of finding out where the edge is and doing it in a way that enhances the content [Rescue Me], rather than seemingly like an obvious ploy for ratings [Nip/Tuck],” Goodman said.

According to critic Ryan: “Nip/Tuck has continually pushed the edge as it keeps finding the edge. It seems to me the people behind that show have kept on thinking, 'Well, now what can we do? We've got to top that' — and I think, to some degree, to the detriment of the show.”

Landgraf denies those contentions, adding that this season Nip/Tuck has received not only its best critical notices ever but its biggest audience. For first-runs of its first nine episodes, Nip/Tuck is averaging 3.9 million total viewers, up 2% from last year.

“We haven't jacked up the content,” Landgraf said. “We could go back and pull episodes from every season — one, two and three — in which the content wasn't any different.”

Premium pay services that are subscription-only and don't run ads, such as Showtime and HBO, have always had more permissive content standards than basic-cable networks.

But despite that acknowledged more lenient content standard, Showtime's The Underground received critical brickbats this fall.

In a “Jeer,” TV Guide charged that the show “goes for shock value with sadly self-explanatory bits called 'The Real Vagina Monologues' and 'Balls Out Jeans.' ”

During the “Monologues” sketch, a pair of real talking lips, chatting up a storm, are superimposed over a woman's genitalia. The critics lambasted that segment.

“My problem is not that there's a talking vagina; it's that it's not saying anything funny,” Philadelphia Daily News TV critic Ellen Gray said.

Showtime really hasn't received much consumer reaction to the bit, according to Showtime Networks chairman and CEO Matt Blank.

“I think it's mostly from critics,” he said. “And this is a show where critics really aren't our target audience. If that had been done in a salacious way, I think we might have had some concerns about it. It's his take-off on the Conan O'Brien phony lips on somebody every night. That's what he's playing off of.”

MAKING SENSE OF IT

VH1's reality show Flavor of Love 2 — a take-off on The Bachelor, in which women compete to be chosen by former Public Enemy rapper Flavor Flav — has been criticized by some African-American groups, for allegedly perpetuating racial stereotypes, as well as by critics. In an episode this summer, one of the contestants defecates on the floor. That incident fueled some bad reviews.

Hirschorn stressed that the incident happened off-camera, refuting “the bit of an urban myth” that it was depicted onscreen. The unseemly incident had to be included in the show because it resonated in following episodes, he said.

“As a kind of practical matter, it was a tricky issue of how to treat it in as delicate a way as possible, while also making the rest of the show coherent,” Hirschorn said. “The character who had the accident seemed to sort of be very proud of it and had no apologies for it. And then it eventually featured into why she got kicked off the show in the third episode. The point was that her storyline would have made no sense without that.”

So VH1 tried “showing as little as we possibly could and speaking to it as little as we possibly could, while still maintaining the coherence of the story,” according to Hirschorn.

It's the kind of dilemma that VH1 faces now that reality programming has matured, and it's obvious that contestants in these shows “are very aware of how to act to get the maximum attention and exposure,” he said.

Flavor of Love 2 and other shows on Viacom Inc. cable networks, such as MTV2's Where My Dogs At?, have drawn the fire of groups such as Industry Ears, a think tank and watchdog group co-founded by Lisa Fagen, a veteran of the record industry and Discovery Channel.

Fagen said she co-founded Industry Ears because she was among those “sick and tired of negative imagery, and the effect it was having on communities of color, children in particular.”

A VH1 spokesman said that no one from Industry Ears had ever contacted the network. But viewers flocked to Flavor of Love 2. Its second season averaged 3.9 million viewers, up 50% from last season's average.

Shouldn't Happen to a Dog
NETWORK: MTV2
SHOW: Where My Dogs At?
CONTENT IN QUESTION: Cartoon where Snoop Dogg-like character walks two women on leashes and one defecates like a dog.
THE ISSUE: MTV2 said the cartoon is a parody, but some still complain it is insulting to females and African-Americans.

The series averaged a 2.3 rating in the 18-to-49 demographic, a 47% gain over its first season,

Industry Ears was also enflamed by an episode of MTV2's animated Where My Dogs At? that aired in July, and parodied a real incident where rapper Snoop Dogg walked down a red carpet walking two women on leashes. In the TV cartoon, one of those two women defecates on the ground.

MTV2 claims it got just one letter complaining about the episode, which was the target of not only complaints from Industry Ears but also some TV critics.

In a statement, MTV2 said: “The segment in question is in fact a parody of an actual appearance Snoop Dogg made when he was accompanied by two women wearing neck collars and chains. We certainly do not condone Snoop's actions and the goal was to take aim at that incident for its insensitivity and outrageousness. Even the show's stars, two dogs, state, 'I find that degrading and I am a dog.' ”

Fagen, however, said that MTV2 is trying to “hide behind their premise of satire,” and that “somehow, you're making it [the Snoop Dogg] incident better by creating it.”

Fuse, the upstart music network, created its own buzz this year, with its stripping dance competition show. It went ahead with Pants-Off Dance-Off because focus groups told the network that they wanted something different, not the “the more salacious girls-in-a-hot-tub spring break” programming that's the bailiwick of MTV, according to Catherine Mullen, who was Fuse's general manager when it launched Pants-Off Dance-Off.

So Fuse, whose demographic is 12 to 34, went ahead with the multi-platform show, which allows viewers to vote by text message or online for their favorite dancing, naked contestant.

NO TURNING BACK

“We made a decision early on that we would make this more like The Gong Show and that it wasn't going to be in any way salacious or gratuitous, and we were going to open up the casting to everybody,” Mullen said. “So I think it's great that we got a 58-year-old retired teacher and a girl in a bear costume.”

Pants-Off Dance-Off garnered a TV Guide “Jeer,” as “the dumbest show on television.” New York Magazine tagged it as “brilliant,” but “low brow.”

“It is unexpected and it does push the boundaries,” Mullen said.

Prevailing standards on TV tend to catch up with channels that are on “the leading edge” of content, like an FX, according to TV historian Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television's executive vice president of research.

“The line does move and, in fact, it will catch up, most likely, with FX eventually,” Brooks said. “It's very frustrating to those who think that television is a cesspool that there's no way they can take it back to House on the Prairie days.”

Mike Farrell contributed to this report.

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