Looking for steamy sex? Explosive violence? Or more four-letter words than a New York Yankees locker room in September? Then look to basic cable.
Adult themes — once the exclusive turf of pay nets Home Box Office and Showtime — are surfacing more and more in shows on basic-cable outlets.
It certainly seems that the latest flurry of basic hits, such as FX's The Shield
and MTV: Music Television's The Osbournes, have put the industry under the microscope of both conservative watchdog groups and the consumer press.
And such scrutiny has spawned concerns from advertisers, many of which are torn between two desires: to sign on with a hit or to avoid becoming the target of a consumer boycott.
Is basic cable television's new bad boy? Does controversy cut through the clutter?
Basic networks' increased willingness to push the standards-and-practices envelope in their original productions — as well as such new strategies as airing uncut theatrical films — represent the medium's progression, noted network executives. That's because the networks can't ignore the audience's increased level of sophistication, programmers said.
"This is an evolution that has been happening for a long time," said USA Network president Doug Herzog. "The line has been moving for many years and it continues to move every day.
"It started with Ren & Stimpy
on Nickelodeon, then Howard Stern
on E!, Beavis and Butthead
on MTV, South Park
on Comedy Central and it continues with The Shield," he added. "That's always been one of basic cable's approaches to programming: To do something differently, to push the boundaries. It isn't the only route to success, but it is one approach that has worked."
Added Turner Network Television senior vice president of marketing Scot Safon: "I think the biggest reason for the new rules is that we realize that, in truth, there are no rules. Perhaps, as an industry, we have been pigeonholing ourselves in ways that consumers don't, advertisers don't and even our distribution partners don't."
For example, the traditional theatrical-film windows are now obsolete, Safon noted.
"Five years ago, a movie's life cycle was cut in stone," he said. "It went from the theaters to home video to broadcast to premium to basic cable.
"Well, we've totally destroyed that idea now, because we're fighting to deliver a better experience to our viewers."
The bar for what's considered shocking on TV has clearly been lowered over the past decade. In 1992, the TV show Murphy Brown
drew the ire of conservatives — including then-Vice President Dan Quayle — when its title character willingly and unashamedly became pregnant out of wedlock.
Today, though, such characters abound on popular broadcast series like Friends, The Gilmore Girls
The roar has faded to a whimper.
Has the public become shockproof?
"I hope not," said Peter Ames Carlin, TV writer for The Oregonian
in Portland, Ore. "But I think shows that airbrush violence, à la the network cop shows, are ultimately more harmful than, say, The Sopranos
or The Shield
— which are painful and hard to watch, and thus much closer to reality."
'SOUTH PARK' DAYS
Comedy Central's animated South Park
was among the first original series to push the standards of languages on basic cable.
"If you stood where I stood then, and to see people's attitude change over the years … well it is remarkable," said Herzog, who headed Comedy when South Park
debuted in 1997. "We didn't know how people would react."
— dubbed "TV's New Nightmare" by the conservative Parents Television Council when it launched — remains popular with TV critics and advertisers. It still raises hackles in some corners, though.
Last year, the PTC singled out an episode in which the S-word was used 162 times in 30 minutes — with each instance boldly tallied on screen. [The episode, by the way, was a satire of TV programmers who used foul language to drive ratings.]
Comedy has maintained the tradition of ribald programming, with such offerings as the series Crank Yankers
and the upcoming telefilm Porn 'n' Chicken. Co-produced by Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Productions and slated for October, the film follows the antics of a group of Yale students who produce the first pornographic movie in the school's 300-year history
"I can push the envelope as long as I entertain," said Comedy Central vice president and general manager Bill Hilary. "As long as networks can sell advertising and viewers are happy we can do it. The reason some quality networks are willing to be more provocative is because that's what the audience wants from them."
Diane Robina, executive vice president and general manager of TNN: The National Network, took a similar stance.
"This is a new type of audience and they've experienced a lot of different things," she said. "Today's younger audience, the audience we're seeking, has seen a lot of R-rated movies, they've played a lot of video games. A lot of barriers have already been broken down."
And many of today's viewers are as concerned about censorship as profanity, said Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
TV writer Joanne Weintraub.
"For every person out there who will object to something they've seen on basic cable there's one ticked off by threats of overcensoring," she said.
Showtime executive vice president of programming Gary Levine sees things somewhat differently.
"I think audiences always have been sophisticated, far more sophisticated than they've been given credit for," he said. "They've been talked down to by broadcasters going all the way back to the 1950s and 60s, when they had married couples sleeping in twin beds. Now, they're finally getting the opportunity to enjoy more sophisticated programming."
THE AD FACTOR
Basic-cable networks have watched Home Box Office and Showtime rake in awards and critical kudos for years, thanks to shows like Sex and the City
and Queer as Folk. So it's no surprise that they're looking to take more risks, according to a number of industry observers.
Some have even asked why it took basic cable so long to get on board.
Basic networks — which, unlike broadcasters, don't have the Federal Communications Commission breathing down their necks — enjoy more flexibility in terms of standards. Still, the ad- supported networks' creative license is tempered and limited when compared to the premium channels.
"There is a fundamental difference between premium cable without advertisers and everyone else," said Showtime's Levine. "Everyone else has to serve the master who is the advertiser, and advertisers are a risk-adverse lot."
So how do basic-cable networks walk that fine line between entertaining viewers and keeping advertisers happy?
"It isn't easy," said Universal McCann senior vice president and group media director Steve Ozzano. "To be honest, it is figured on a case-by-case basis.
"On one hand, no matter what your particular moral opinion is on these things, if they tend to pull ratings it's a good thing. On the other hand, advertisers are very sensitive about their brand and what message a network is putting out there."
Added Comedy's Hilary: "The important thing is that you're honest about the programming. We don't pretend to be anything that we're not here at Comedy Central. Advertisers know exactly what they're signing on for."
No one knows this better than executives at FX, which is enjoying its first breakout hit in cop drama The Shield.
A risky undertaking, The Shield
costs a steep $1.3 million per episode. The network also spent more than $5 million to market the show
as the type of gritty drama that broadcasters wouldn't dare schedule.
(Tuesdays at 10 p.m.) ended its first season June 4 on a winning note: It generated a 3.9 household rating, 3 million homes and 4.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
For the season, FX said the series was tops among adults 18 to 49, adults 25 to 54, males 18 to 49 and 25 to 54, and women 25 to 54. The 13-episode first season of The Shield
averaged a 2.8 HH rating.
But such rough themes as child rape and police brutality— and a widely discussed scene in which a cop urinates on a perpetrator — vexed the PTC. Earlier this year, a dozen advertisers jettisoned The Shield, including Burger King Corp. and General Motors Corp.
As a result of the media hoopla, FX executives have gone underground, refusing to discuss any aspect of the series. While a network spokesman said FX is tired of rehashing the show's woes with advertisers and conservative groups, sources said the channel wanted the heat to die down while it angled for several Emmy Award nominations. Emmy ballots were cast in mid-June; nominations are announced in July.
"If they could win some Emmys, or get nominated at least, it would bring them a great deal of credibility," Herzog noted.
Drawing on his experience with South Park, Herzog said plenty of "heat-seeking" advertisers, such as movie studios and video-game manufacturers, would likely be willing to pay a premium for The Shield
if the ratings hold up.
TO THINE AUDIENCE BE TRUE
Basic-cable network executives and TV critics agree that one thing hasn't changed: A show must entertain to become appointment viewing.
"For me it's not the profanity or nudity that makes a break out show, it's the honesty. It's the writing and acting," said the Milwaukee Journal's Weintraub. "I don't think sex and violence are necessary to create a breakout show, or sufficient to create a breakout show.
"They might get some initial attention. But people aren't going to sit through The Shield
every week hoping for some nudity. It's a long time between tits, if you know what I mean."
There are many definitions for entertainment, network executives agreed.
"Queer as Folk
made a bold statement in the original-series business in a big way because it had the guts to portray people and situations honestly," said Levine. "I think the best drama and even the best comedy is that which feels real. Part of the success Showtime and HBO enjoy is that our programming sounds and feels real."
Showtime's search for relatable programming brought it to Street Time, which debuted June 16. The network isn't looking to soften the characters or situations on a show that explores the relationship between parolees and parole officers for general consumption, Levine said.
For TNT, that quest led to Witchblade, the tale of a New York detective who teams up with an ancient weapon and life force to battle the forces of evil. Based on a popular Top Cow Comics book of the same name, Witchblade's
premise generated enough on-screen violence last year to draw fire from the PTC.
second season debut June 16 garnered a 2.6 household rating (update), and also captured good marks among adults 18 to 34, 18 to 49 and 25 to 54.
audience enjoys this type of fantastical storytelling and they enjoy the dramatic principals of the show," said Safon. "The very nature of the genre is going to take us into grittier territory.
"But that's what fans of the genre expect. They won't settle for less."
TESTING THE WATERS
While Comedy Central and MTV are old hands at pushing the envelope, other networks have only started to dip their toe into the deep end. ESPN's A Season on the Brink, which aired in March, contained strong language on a network noted for the more polite tones of sports play-by-play — and drew some 4.5 million viewers.
An edited version of the film about longtime Indiana University men's basketball coach Bobby Knight (which aired simultaneously on the less-penetrated ESPN2) only attracted a fraction of that audience. Viewers evidently agreed that Knight's verbal assaults on players, the press and officials were necessary to accurately depict the man and his temper.
For its part, Bravo will repeat The Larry Sanders Show
— HBO's hit sitcom that went behind the scenes of a fictional late-night talk show —
in the fall, with only minimal editing. Executives said adult situations and dialogue were appropriate because kids aren't Bravo viewers. Bravo is scheduled to air the highly acclaimed series at 10 p.m.
"We'll edit the show to South Park
standards," Bravo executive vice president and general manager Ed Carroll quipped when the deal was announced.
In its pursuit of 25-to-34-year-olds, TNN will introduce an edgy adult-animation block and televise uncut theatricals with fewer commercial interruptions.
"We came to that not from a strategy of being edgy, but of trying to be in touch with our audience — who prefer movies uncut, enjoy R-rated movies and who are consumers of HBO and Showtime," said Robina. "Animation is a staple for our viewers, who grew up with shows like Beavis and Butt-head, Ren & Stimpy
and The Simpsons."
The showcase of the animation block, to start next March, is Gary The Rat. In the 30-minute original series, Kelsey Grammer will voice Gary, a New York attorney who is so despicable that he wakes up one morning to discover that he's turned into a rodent.
The Ren & Stimpy Show
will be part of the block — and scenes edited out when the series aired on Nickelodeon will be retrieved from the cutting-room floor. Stripperella, a campy, 30-minute series from Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee — voiced by Pamela Anderson — is also in development.
"She's a stripper by night, and a super hero by later night," laughed Robina.
Following its success in airing the basic-cable/broadcast's first uncut version of The Godfather
and Godfather Part II
last year, TNN also plans to screen one unedited theatrical per quarter, with limited commercial breaks. Top Gun
debuts in September and in December. And to coincide with Martin Scorsese's latest release, Gangs of New York, Robina plans to air Mean Streets
in the same manner.
"With The Godfather,
we were very respectful to our cable-operator partners and viewers," said Robina. "We over-disclaimed the parental rating by displaying it coming in and out of every break. We had no problem with advertisers and we received one viewer complaint."
Aside from the inherent risks in creating original series targeted for adults, there are also questions about the back-end opportunities available to series riddled with prurient content.
Last year, HBO Enterprises looked to recoup some of its investment from Sex and the City, editing the nudity and four-letter words out of six half-hour episodes. The goal: To prove to potential buyers that a cleaned-up version of the show would work as well as the original.
Sources close to those syndication negotiations said buyers couldn't come to terms with HBO's asking price — $750,000 per episode — and the fact that the show had to be almost gutted to remove objectionable scenes.
An HBO spokesman said the network pulled the series from the syndication market because president Jeff Bewkes didn't want to dilute the franchise with basic-cable plays.
Sex and the City, along with HBO hits such as Oz
and The Sopranos, has found a second life via the network's home-video division. Prior seasons are offered in boxed sets, both on DVD and VHS.
Showtime's Queer as Folk
is also available on DVD. Levine dismisses the notion that networks can't recoup their investment in adult series on the back-end.
"I don't think Queer as Folk
is going to end up on Nick at Nite, so I guess you could say the options for its afterlife are more limited," he said. "But there are options, for example, Showtime and MTV still are considering creating a gay channel and it could end up there.
"And as basic cable continues to try to emulate premium networks and they continue moving the line, who knows? Maybe they'll be interested. Anything can happen."