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Cable offers creative freedom but b'cast has millions of rebuttals

This article was corrected on Sep. 9, 2002.

There’s plenty of reasons someone would want to pitch their drama skein straight to a pay cable network:

  • More creative control.

  • Able to portray adult content.

  • No need to worry about advertiser reaction.

  • Far less concern over ratings.

So why would anyone want to approach a broadcast net first? There’s about 18 million reasons.

A hugely popular episode of an HBO skein, say “The Sopranos” or “Sex and the City,” might draw in the neighborhood of 10 million. The top “Friends” episodes bring in about 28 million eyeballs.

“At the end of the day, a broadcast network can give you the opportunity to have millions of more people see your show,” says Fox drama topper Craig Erwich.

Those are the kind of numbers that’ll put a few zeros on a showrunner’s paycheck and something to think about for anyone who only considers taking a project to HBO or Showtime.

Brad Grey, who has a collection of hits on broadcast (“Just Shoot Me,” “NewsRadio,” “The Steve Harvey Show”) and cable (“The Sopranos,” “The Larry Sanders Show”) channels, says broadcast talks a good game about keeping up with cable’s envelope-pushing but it’s a long way off from loosening the reins.

“I don’t see the broadcast networks changing,” says Grey, as he — like the rest of the Mob-starved nation — waits in anticipation of “The Sopranos” Sept. 15 season premiere. “There’s a lot of chatter about it but I don’t see it happening in terms of execution on network TV.

“It’s romantic to talk about networks embracing the kind of standards of an HBO but it’s impossible and probably not going to happen.”

Erwich, a seven-year veteran, disagrees ever so slightly. While he’ll concede that the sex and violence on pay cable are a long way from landing on Fox or any other broadcast net, changes are subtle and under way.

“You can see it. If you look at the history of television, it loosens every year,” explains Erwich. “There were times when I couldn’t even imagine doing what we’re doing now. I don’t know where it’s headed, but if you look at the evolution of it, it always evolves.”

Steven Bochco, who has created several breakthrough dramas — “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law,” “NYPD Blue” — all on broadcast networks, says the best place to pitch a show hinges on the premise of the skein.

“I think it depends on what you’re looking to accomplish. I would talk to HBO in a heartbeat and, in fact, will, but you know if ABC or NBC comes to me and says we want to do this show that is something of a more standard network fare in terms of treatment, then you don’t need to go to HBO with that. You’re going to go different horses for different courses.”

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