When HBO introduced “The Sopranos” in 1999, critics applauded the smartly crafted stories about a modern-day crime family. They saw the obscenities, sex, nudity and violence as part of what made it so realistic.
But it’s unclear how audiences will react beginning Wednesday when a version of the series moves from the 30 million homes paying a premium to get HBO to the 90 million that get A&E Network in their basic cable TV package.
Some of the more graphic elements have been edited out of the show, but it may still cause a stir.
That’s because fed-up parents and lawmakers are making an issue of what they see as the spread of child-unfriendly programming on basic cable, following the success of taboo-breaking shows including FX’s “The Shield,” “Rescue Me” and “Nip/Tuck,” Comedy Central’s “South Park” and MTV’s annual “Spring Break.”
“There are cable network programmers whose clear and sole objective is to break any boundary without regard for what the consequences are for society,” says Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents Television Council.
If edgy shows such as “The Sopranos” lead more people to conclude that Winter is right, it could result in government restrictions on these basic networks, which now largely regulate themselves.
Some 60 percent of adults endorsed programming standards for basic cable in a recent Pew Research Center survey.
“You’re hearing the tom-toms beating in Washington,” says Henry Schleiff, CEO of Crown Media, which owns the Hallmark Channel.
“The risk is that we are subjecting ourselves to potential regulation from the Federal Communications Commission or Congress. That’s a very, very big thing.”
Congress has considered letting the FCC apply the same kinds of rules for obscene or indecent programming to basic cable as it does to the broadcast networks.
An alternative approach, favored by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, would leave programming untouched but require cable and satellite providers to offer basic channels on an “a la carte” basis. Consumers could buy (or skip) channels individually, the same way they can now with premium channels such as HBO – which cable operators say would kill off many smaller and specialized channels.
These crosscurrents forced A&E to painstakingly edit “The Sopranos.” It couldn’t be so bland that it would turn off the young adult viewers that advertisers covet – viewers the network must win to justify the record $2.5 million it is paying for each of the 78 episodes.
But A&E also had to do something to escape the wrath of anti-smut activists who might target the channel and its advertisers.
“We do not want to be the people who ruined ‘The Sopranos,’ ” says Dawn Porter, A&E vice president of standards and practices.
General Manager Bob DeBitetto says of the final edit: “When I look at … so much that’s on television elsewhere already, I mean, my goodness, we’re so well within that.”
In 2004, A&E began to chase younger viewers, he says, and “we had to do something that was scary, which was to fairly rudely … show our loyal viewership the door.”
“The Sopranos” is key to that effort.
“This is certainly going to change A&E,” says Deana Myers, a senior analyst at Kagan Research. “It gets them talked about.”
No easy choices
Established, general entertainment cable channels know if they don’t air attention-grabbing shows, they risk becoming irrelevant.
Prime-time ratings for the 36 largest cable networks fell 1.7 percent in the first three quarters of 2006 versus the same period in 2005. And the average home now gets 95 channels, up from 77 in 2000.
“The environment has gotten a lot more competitive because there are a lot more options: (regular) channels, video on demand, video on broadband,” says David Zaslav, CEO of Discovery Communications. “To reach viewers, you have to be clear about what you are in your niche.”
Faced with growing pressures to stand out, many executives are backing away from offering mainly reruns of broadcasters’ hit sitcoms and dramas.
“Outside of ‘Law & Order,’ there aren’t a lot of (rerun) series that have really boosted a cable network,” says Hallmark’s Schleiff.
” ‘NYPD Blue’ didn’t do much for Court TV,” adds Schleiff, who previously ran that network.
One solution has been for channels to produce their own shows. FX showed how that could pay off beginning in 2002 when it introduced “The Shield.” That, followed by “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me,” helped lift FX from the No. 12 cable network in prime time for prized 18- to 49-year-olds in 2001 to No. 5 last year.
The network also discovered with “The Shield” and its other graphic shows that there were secondary revenue sources.
“There is an incredible appetite for (the series) overseas,” says John Landgraf, FX president and general manager. “They also do well on DVD. … I recently looked at a list of television DVDs, and we had four of the top 20.”
Other channels caught on, and also moved toward the edge.
“Even a show like (Sci-Fi Channel’s) ‘Battlestar Galactica’ has pushed the envelope further than you’d see on a broadcast network: more graphic scenes of violence, some sexual content,” says Nielsen Analytics’ Larry Gerbrandt. “It’s a darker vision.”
At the same time, the cable industry is trying to cater to parents who don’t want their kids to see such fare.
Late in 2005, the major operators introduced, as an alternative to basic cable packages, bundles of only kid-friendly channels. Comcast, Time Warner and Cox declined to say how many homes signed up.
The industry also beefed up marketing to tell parents how their TV sets, cable boxes or DVRs can block certain shows or channels.
“We’ve done some great campaigns on that,” Zaslav says. “We have a rating system that provides real clarity.”
Along with more original productions, basic cable channels have taken a new look at the potential in reruns of hits from premium channels.
In addition to A&E’s deal with HBO for “The Sopranos,” Bravo picked up “Six Feet Under” and TBS got “Sex and the City.”
A&E says the edited “Sopranos” episodes will be rated TV-14 (some episodes will include labels indicating strong language or violence).
Little had to be cut, A&E’s Porter says: “Our little secret is that it wasn’t as hard as people think it is.”
The first two seasons presented the biggest challenges. Producers didn’t expect the show to become such a big hit and didn’t film less-graphic versions of key scenes.
A&E got around some of those problems by using footage from the cutting-room floor and soundtracks with the actors replacing profanities.
Violence was “by far the easiest” element to address, DeBitetto says, because shows such as “The Shield” have redefined what’s acceptable. More troublesome were naked dancers in the background of key scenes.
“We were able to pull the frame in a little bit so maybe you see the girls’ legs but not the naughty bits,” he says. “The good news is we haven’t had to cut out the scenes.”
Such trimming of graphic scenes “help(s) to legitimize the more vulgar stuff” and “allow(s) advertisers to get comfortable” with the shows, complains the Parents Television Council’s Winter.
Indeed, even “The Sopranos” is starting to seem tame.
“There’s absolutely no reason the episodes that are on A&E could not air on local (broadcast) television stations,” says Scott Carlin, HBO’s president of domestic programming distribution.
If A&E hadn’t bought the show, he says, “We would have had a pretty easy time syndicating ‘The Sopranos’ around the country.”
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