Cablers launch raunch

Basic cable lures viewers with risque content

Basic-cable networks like FX, Comedy Central and MTV, which take pride in shrugging off censorship taboos, are gearing up to welcome lots of disgruntled broadcast TV viewers in 2005.

The grumpiness, particularly among young audiences, will almost certainly grow as the broadcast networks continue to soften the content of their shows, bowing to the dictates of the Federal Communications Commission, which has begun doling out humongous fines for everything from indecency to foul language.

Cable TV networks, as a category, are already harvesting a bigger share of the audience, on average, than the broadcast webs, which have lost more than 2 million viewers in primetime so far this season while cable was climbing in the other direction, adding just under 3 million.

At least one reason for the growing disparity is that ad-supported cable has begun to eclipse broadcasting as the place for eye-poppingly raunchy programming.

Just ask Tim Brooks, senior VP of research for Lifetime TV, who says the kind of sexy stuff that would pass unnoticed on cable often creates a furor on broadcast TV.

Brooks cites the satirical spot ABC ran Nov. 15 right before “Monday Night Football” — a discreetly naked Nicolette Sheridan successfully seducing Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens — to promote both Sheridan’s “Desperate Housewives” and “MNF.”

That spot, which so riled Michael Powell, FCC commissioner, that he snapped, “I wonder if Walt Disney would be proud,” would not have caused a ripple if it had run on a Disney-owned cable channel like Soap Net.

Similarly, if Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during last season’s Super Bowl halftime had run on MTV, not sister Viacom net CBS, cable viewers would’ve heaved a collective ho-hum, says Brooks.

The bluenoses are well aware of what cable is getting away with. Lara Mahaney, head of corporate and entertainment affairs for the D.C.-based Parents TV Council, says her organization’s goal is to try to chip away at the economic foundation of networks like FX and Comedy Central by urging Congress to pass a law ordering cable systems to sell basic-cable channels a la carte, the way HBO and Showtime get bought by subscribers.

So far, the cable industry has successfully forestalled any serious move toward such a law by focusing on the threat not only to networks that parents groups don’t like but to ones they have no problem with, such as Lifetime, TLC and ABC Family.

The industry argument goes like this: Advertising revenues are vital to the bottom line of most cable networks; if cable systems didn’t bundle them into the customer’s bill for one fee — as part of a multinetwork, expanded-basic package — not enough viewers would buy them as standalones, for a separate price.

For example, HBO takes no advertising, but it reaches only about 27 million subscribers. By contrast, because of bundling, each of the 25 largest ad-supported cable networks is available to more than 86.5 million. If these networks plunged to HBO subscriber levels, Madison Avenue would lose interest, and many of the cable webs would go out of business.

Madison Avenue also gets bombarded by the Parents TV Council, which often urges viewers to stop buying products advertised on such shows as FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” Comedy Central’s “South Park” and MTV’s “Laguna Beach.”

But John Landgrafe, president of entertainment for FX, says even though FX series such as “Nip/Tuck,” “The Shield” and “Rescue Me” are on some Madison Avenue hit lists, “advertisers have bought into our strategy and they sign up on our terms.”

FX’s advertisers are gung ho, says Landgrafe, because the network series that push against the edges of content draw a disproportionate number of 18-to-49-year-old viewers who are upscale, urban and well-educated.

As a former NBC programming executive, Landgrafe finds cable a boon because it doesn’t have to kowtow to a small army of risk-averse general managers of TV stations, who will refuse to carry a broadcast-network show, no matter how worthy, if they think it might offend someone in their community.

(Sixty-six ABC affiliates canceled a showing of “Saving Private Ryan” because of fear the FCC would go after them with fines and threats to their license renewals.)

Nothing like that kind of pressure exists among cable networks, which love that advantage because, as Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, puts it, “The edgier shows are the ones that get people talking and pull in the viewers.”

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