A gay mortician, a mobster with family troubles and a crooked cop with a bad temper may not have a home on broadcast television, but on cable — where sex, violence and foul language proliferate — complex characters that explore the gray areas of morality thrive.
From its inception, cable networks have taken creative risks and pushed the envelope in order to create buzz.
“In the mid-1980s, the broadcast networks were so dominant that to get attention, cable had to do something that was a little further afield,” says Tim Brooks, senior VP of research at Lifetime. The result was racy shows such as “The Hitchhiker,” “Dream On” and “First & Ten.”
Cable has matured since then and is no longer viewed as the poor sibling to network television. In fact, the creative freedom that cable grants has served as incentive for some of the top talent in the industry.
“At the moment, pay cable is the only place we could do our show,” says Ron Cowen, executive producer of Showtime’s “Queer as Folk.” “I couldn’t imagine doing our show on a broadcast network because of the explicit nature of the language and subject matter.”
As a result of dramas like “Queer as Folk,” “Oz,” Six Feet Under” and “The Sopranos” on HBO, and “The Shield” on FX, viewers have grown accustomed to seeing explicit sex and realistic violence on the small screen. But cable execs, as well as the shows’ creators, insist that the idea isn’t to titillate, but rather to mirror reality.
“What we try to convey to our creators is ‘We want you to be as honest and as realistic as you want to be,’ ” says Gary Levine, exec VP, original programming at Showtime, ” ‘but don’t ever cross the line into gratuitous.’ ”
Of course, where that line starts and ends is a judgment call.
“We let our creators go where they believe the integrity of the work should go and let the audience decide, rather than a couple of uptight standards and practices execs who are worried about upsetting advertisers,” Levine says.
There’s also a huge gap between what can be shown on pay cable and basic cable. Basic cable, like network television, is ultimately accountable to advertisers.
“Pay cable’s only customer is that individual taking out their checkbook every single month to pay their bill. In the world of basic cable, I concern myself with affiliates and advertisers, as well as the audience,” say Peter Ligouri, president-CEO of FX.
“The Shield” creator Shawn Ryan acknowledges there are certain things he stays away from because the show airs on basic cable.
“I don’t think you’ll see the full frontal nudity that you see on ‘Oz,'” he says. “We’ve yet to use the word ‘fuck’ on our show, and I doubt we’ll go there. We have plenty of choices for words that allow us to explore those emotions without using some of the worst swear words.”
Carolyn Strauss, senior VP of original programming at HBO, says it irks her when people credit the channel’s success to it playing by a different set of rules than the broadcast nets.
“We get noticed for the work because it’s good, not because someone can take their top off or say a curse word,” says Strauss. “I don’t think curses or nudity is what garners acclaim.”
Shock value isn’t enough to sustain a show, says “Queer” exec producer Dan Lipman.
“What makes a series successful are compelling stories that people want to come back to. If it was just people tuning in to see men having sex, it would have fizzled out by now.”
With basic cable shows like “The Shield” breaking boundaries with language and violence for a basic cabler, some think it’s only a matter of time before the broadcast nets follow in cable’s steps.
“There is no doubt network has noticed the successes of cable,” says FX’s Ligouri. “People can identify a pretty good playbook in this town. Though they might not steal the entire playbook, there is certainly a page here and there they’ll borrow.”
And cable will, no doubt continue to push the envelope.A writer’s responsibility is to truthfully reflect the world we live in,” says “Queer’s” Cowen. “As more and more horrifying things are happening in the world, what we write has to keep pace with that. As the world pushes us further, I guess we’ll have to go there.”