Basic cable takes R-rated route

TV needs a time out for bad behavior

What the #%&* is going on with basic cable?

All of a sudden ESPN’s viewers are being subjected to a barrage of uncensored profanity — highlighted by all the choice four-letter words — spewing from the mouth of Brian Dennehy as coach Bobby Knight in an 8 p.m. telepic (5 p.m. L.A. time).

The ESPN movie, “A Season on the Brink,” was just a one-shot. FX is filming a whole series about Los Angeles cops, “The Shield,” that makes “NYPD Blue” look almost tame by comparison.

Even reruns are not immune to the let-it-all-hang-out cable programming trend. Bravo’s executive VP/general manager Ed Carroll assured a group of reporters last week that repeats of HBO’s foul-mouthed “The Larry Sanders Show” would only be lightly edited. “We’ll allow adult dialogue and mature situations because kids don’t watch Bravo,” he says.

Have cable networks taken leave of their senses? Are they alienating advertisers and inviting federal officials — who right now have no regulatory power over cable content — to go after programming that deliberately pushes the boundaries of what’s acceptable to the viewing audience?

Cable observers say those concerns take a back seat to a cold economic reality: As more cable networks and pay-per-view movie channels are charging into the marketplace with the advent of digital TV, shock tactics are required to capture the attention of distracted subscribers.

For both ESPN and FX, the approach seems to have worked. “Season” delivered a 3.2 rating in cable homes during its March 10 premiere. By contrast, the sanitized version on ESPN 2 managed only 0.5 rating with cable homes. But the two nets together put the movie in more than 3 million homes.

“Shield,” meanwhile, kicked off in its weekly Tuesday-at-10-p.m. timeslot March 12 and pulled the highest-ever rating for a preem episode of a scripted cable series, at a 4.1 rating.

Tim Brooks, senior VP of research for Lifetime, says some basic-cable networks are trying to emulate HBO’s no-holds-barred formula, which has yielded such series as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.” These two shows not only deliver massive number of pay TV viewers but walk away with satchels full of Emmys and Golden Globes.

HBO’s high-end series are purloining viewers from both broadcast and basic cable. But basic cable is getting hit with a problem just as worrisome: While viewership to the broadcast networks is beginning to level off, cable networks have started cannibalizing themselves.

As their ratings fall off, “cable networks are getting racier with their content,” says Garnett Losak, VP/director of programming for Petry Media Corp. “That’s a tried-and-true way to get viewers back into the tent.”

Most of the networks pushing the boundaries are trying to pump up their Nielsen ratings among young males.

It’s not only ESPN with the Knight movie and FX with “The Shield,” Brooks says, but USA’s decision to run the network premiere of “Big Daddy,” the Adam Sandler vehicle, without any cuts, and Comedy Central’s continued embrace of the foul-mouthed third-graders on “South Park.”

Madison Avenue will pay a premium to the networks that attract masses of young men, so cable channels keep upping the ante in sex, violence and language as one way to deliver the demo. Getting these viewers is difficult because young males spend less time watching TV than any other demo, says Losak, who dubs them “television’s most elusive audience.”

Cable networks will also keep trying to skirt the edge of the envelope with series and movies because “the loonies that advertisers are afraid of seem to be going away,” says Lisa Mateas, a cable consultant and former senior VP of programming for TNT. She’s referring to the pressure groups that declaim loudly over program content they regard as offensive.

“It’s all about money,” Mateas says. “As long as advertisers keep buying time in these shows, they’ll keep finding their way onto the cable schedules.”

Even the broadcast networks push the envelope with greater ease these days. While over-the-air TV stations must still be careful, lest they lose their license, network TV can get away with more than ever. CBS’ “9/11” docudrama, for example, included scenes of profanity (granted, given the circumstances, it was quite justified).

An ESPN spokesman says the network was surprised at how little protest it generated with the cablecast of “Season on the Brink.” However, ESPN covered its bases by constantly filling the screen during breaks with parental advisories and inviting viewers repelled by the profanity to switch to ESPN2, where a bleeped version of the movie was running simultaneously.

“The public has become much more accepting,” Brooks says. Viewers are saying, in effect, “I may not like a particular program but I’m not going to stop other people from watching it.”

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