NBC’s Brit import: Steamy or seamy?

Advertisers, auds may not cuddle with 'Coupling'

NBC hasn’t yet given an official pickup to its comedy pilot “Coupling” — but the BBC import is already raising eyebrows around Hollywood for its racy content.

The good news for the show is that Peacock execs– having already spent $4 million-plus to shoot two pilots– seem to like the finished result a lot, and an order for fall or midseason seems highly likely. Indeed, some industry prognosticators are already speculating about a 9:30 p.m. Thursday slot for the show, from exec producer Ben Silverman’s U-based Reveille and showrunner-exec producer Phoef Sutton (“Cheers”).

More intriguing, however, is how advertisers and audiences will react to a broadcast television series that deals frequently, and explicitly, with sex.

While HBO’s Emmy-winning “Sex and the City” says (and shows) much more than “Coupling,” broadcasters are still skittish when it comes to sex — though they’ve grown braver in recent years. NBC’s “Friends” and “Will & Grace” have managed some rather risque dialogue this season without any outcry, though neither show is as centered around copulation as “Coupling,” which is based on scribe Steven Moffat’s original scripts for the BBC. Beryl and Sue Vertue are also exec producers on the skein, which features an ensemble cast led by Rena Sofer.

Among the more eye-popping plot points from the show’s pilot:

  • “One swallow does not a girlfriend make,” a man says to his friend in describing a particularly intense round of lovemaking.

  • A couple has intercourse in a bathroom stall.

  • A woman woos back an ex-boyfriend by revealing her past sexual encounters with women.

A senior NBC exec said all of the dialogue in the pilot has been approved by the net’s standards and practices division, and that it’s unlikely the show will air in anything but a 9:30 p.m. timeslot, at least initially. What’s more, the fact that almost all of the explicit dialogue in the pilot has already aired on the BBC should give both NBC and producers cover from critics who accuse the skein of being coarse for the sake of coarseness.

“This show comes from the BBC, which is the most high-end, Tiffany broadcaster in the world,” Silverman said. “We’re not putting something on because we want to be salacious. We’re trying to adapt a wonderfully intelligent, well-written piece of material.”

Silverman believes American auds are ready for a network show that treats them like adults when talking about sex.

“The show is a sophisticated comedy that deals with adult, sophisticated themes,” he said. “And it deals with them through comedy, and not smut. It’s more like Oscar Wilde than an R-rated movie.”

What’s more, Silverman believes networks need to push the envelope in order to stop “the flood of viewers to cable.”

Sutton said he and the show’s writers are simply trying to pen a show that accurately displays how a generation of single folks talk and deal with sex.

“We’re just going for what seems honest and funny and what fits the characters,” he said. “We’re not censoring ourselves, and it feels sort of liberating.”

Still, being smart and sophisticated doesn’t cover all sins in broadcast television.

“NYPD Blue” won monster raves when it bowed — but that didn’t stop conservative activists from mounting protests or prevent advertisers from bailing.

“This is a big, conservative country,” one veteran network exec said. “Whereas HBO might be able to get away with (racy) content with their limited, upscale audience, there could be a whole lot more people who will reject a show that covers this kind of territory.”

As long as “Coupling” maintains an aura of sophistication, however, advertisers will likely be willing to accept a show with explicit sexual storylines. Early ratings will also be key.

“It goes back to that old line, ‘At a 5 share it’s sex and violence; at a 20 share, it’s romance and adventure’,” the exec said.

NBC execs, in New York to finalize details of the net’s fall sked, were not available for comment.

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