The Biz: Taking cue from cable, gingerly

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For years, HBO has gone with the tagline "It's not TV, it's HBO." But recently, TV has become a lot more like HBO.

From the "9/11" documentary on CBS to the foul-language-filled ESPN movie about college basketball coach Bobby Knight to the debut of FX's new cop series "The Shield," the past week may prove to be a watershed in TV's gradual shift toward content that resembles HBO. The AOL Time Warner pay channel has turned itself into a high-profile destination for edgy, envelope-pushing original programming with shows with jarring violence ("The Sopranos") to ones with frank sexual content and no apparent language restrictions ("Sex and the City").

Broadcast and cable executives harbor some jealousy toward HBO, which does not have to answer to advertisers. So they are delicately trying programming that can create similar audience interest while still selling in advertisers. When they run into advertiser wariness, they seem reluctant to alter the programming and more willing to find replacement sponsors.

"In many ways, we don't feel that the HBOs and Showtimes have a monopoly on compelling, quality adult programming," says Peter Liguori, president-CEO of News Corp.'s FX Networks. "And we believe that there are advertisers that have the same feeling."

Viacom's CBS persuaded Nextel to serve as the sole sponsor of the "9/11" documentary, which did not bleep out any coarse language from firefighters in action and aired the sounds of bodies falling from the World Trade Center towers. The remarkable show for broadcast TV brought a remarkable audience with a 22.3 rating and 39 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

On the same night, Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN posted a strong 2.8 rating with 4.3 million viewers for a movie version of the book "A Season on the Brink," which chronicled a year in the life of the oft-crude Knight. ESPN had Knight's character using the "f-word" liberally. A version without the foul language that aired simultaneously on ESPN2 posted a much smaller 0.4 rating (761,000 viewers). Some say while coarse language was necessary for the story to be realistic, it was overused. A New York sports talk-show host said the movie should have been called "How many times in a day can Bobby Knight say the f-word?"

A month before the movie, ESPN's presenting sponsor, General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac unit, pulled out after company screeners saw the film and objected to the profanity, especially in the 8 p.m. time slot, a GM spokeswoman said. ESPN was able to find a replacement in Miller Lite, but was left with the Pontiac logo on billboards and other promotions. A number of other undisclosed advertisers also dropped out. An ESPN spokeswoman declined to comment.

edgier and bolder

"Cable networks that aim toward primarily male audiences are setting out to be edgier and getting bolder," says Tim Brooks, senior VP-research at Lifetime, co-owned by Hearst Corp. and Disney. "Moreover, viewers seem to be more forgiving or accepting of this."

And when concerned advertisers pull out of a ribald show, one ad-sales executive says beer, movie and foreign automobile marketers remain open to dealing.

FX had a similar experience with its March 12 launch of its 13-week series "The Shield" about a renegade cop who will stop at nothing to pursue his version of justice, not necessarily the law's.

Before the opener, Capital One and John Deere pulled their ad support, while GM decided against advertising after viewing the pilot. After the debut, Office Depot and New Balance pulled out for the second episode and last week were evaluating whether to re-enter, one executive said, adding that Burger King pulled its ads from reruns of the initial episode and was reviewing whether to support future episodes. The initial show outperformed guarantees FX made to advertisers (1.1 to 2.0 ratings) with a 3 rating and 4.8 million viewers, and FX executives believe the show will continue to draw advertisers. "The bottom line is advertisers follow audiences," says Bruce Lefkowitz, exec VP-entertainment sales, Fox Cable.

contributing: jean halliday

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