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Pushing the raunch envelope

When the boys from South Park
uttered a certain s-word 162 times on Comedy Central last summer, no cable nets dared to emulate it. But now some channels, including ESPN, FX and Bravo, are testing their self-imposed boundaries, and what was once considered questionable content is seeping down from premium channels to basic cable.

But some observers and media buyers think basic cable's growing frankness misses the point: Premium channels get away with adult themes because viewers pay—and the programs are often a cut above almost everything else on television.

"Three letters explain the whole thing: HBO," said Kris Magel, manager of national broadcast for media buyer Optimedia International USA.

Young-skewing Comedy Central and MTV are regularly criticized for indecency in their shows—from South Park's potty-mouthed kids to raucous pranks on MTV's Jackass. Recently, the blue-nose hit list has grown to include ESPN's first TV movie,
Season on the Brink, and FX rogue-cop drama The Shield. Even high-brow Bravo plans to lightly edit reruns of HBO's Larry Sanders Show
beginning next fall.

Family-friendly fare just isn't cutting it for some channels. Programmers say they're not looking to offend or corrupt. To be edgy and realistic, though, they have to test the limits. "Cable networks feel that the more 'real' their programming gets, the more appointment viewing and audience they'll draw," says Magel, acknowledging that only some of his clients can deal with the content.

"We wanted Bob Knight, warts and all," said ESPN Senior VP of Programming Mark Shapiro of the decision to air Season on the Brink
unedited. "It was impossible to tell a credible and authentic story without [profanity]."

ESPN execs shuddered to see Knight—well-known for explosive temper—screaming "shucks" in a heated locker-room scene.

But until a week before the March 10 premiere, ESPN planned to bleep out profanity for the 8 p.m. showing. Then it hit on an idea: It ran a cleaned-up version on sister net ESPN2 and left the raw one on the mother net. (At every commercial, an advisory informed viewers of the ESPN2 version.)

Without the ESPN2 alternative, Shapiro says, ESPN would never have run the movie uncut. ESPN's version harvested a 3.5 rating, while ESPN2 pulled in a 0.5, apparently fortifying the idea that basic viewers can deal with basic bad language. Likewise, FX's debut of The Shield, replete with raw language, scored a very strong 4.1 in Nielsen overnight, which could help the network out of its ratings swoon.

FX cautiously airs The Shield
at 10 p.m. Bravo plans to do the same with Larry Sanders, distancing it from family hour.

Like an HBO original series, The Shield
features some raw scenes. In one, Michael Chiklis, starring as Detective Vik Mackey, tries to get a suspected pedophile to open up by confiding, "I got a little girl back home, 8 years old. Her name is Cassidy. What do you say I bring her down here and let you stick your dick in her? How'd you like that? Suck her tits a little, maybe?"

Shocking content can't carry The Shield, said FX Senior VP of Entertainment Kevin Reilly. "If the stories aren't good and the characters aren't there, viewers will be gone in 30 minutes." FX spends a steep $1.3 million per episode for high production quality.

Still, conservative and family groups rail. Said Bob Waliszewski, manager of youth culture for Focus on the Family, "Raunchy, explicit content isn't good for a society or young kids, and cable is leading the way."