Restraining Order


South Park's Cartman In Afghanistan

"God, what a craphole, dude! This is like East Denver! Jesus Chrrrrrist!"


South Park's Cartman In Afghanistan

"God, what a craphole, dude! This is like East Denver!"

They're finally washing Cartman's mouth out with soap. And they're toning down slutty Samantha, too. Just as Congress is slamming broadcasters over foul language, producers are squeezing more money out of cable's most risqué shows by selling them in syndication to broadcast stations and tamer cable networks. We've screened sanitized versions of Comedy Central's South Park
and HBO's Sex and the City
that syndicators are taking to stations to demonstrate they'll work on broadcast TV.

It's clear, from what we've been seeing, that TV executives are trying to thread a slender needle, toning down language and other content without alienating fans or destroying the flavor that has made the shows such breakthroughs. HBO's funny, raunchy Sex and the City
hits TBS in June and shows up on broadcast stations next year, too. Comedy Central's deliciously vulgar cartoon South Park
is slated to bow on TV stations in fall 2005.

Still, the new anti-indecency wave is making things difficult. "The Janet Jackson thing is bad for everyone," says Mort Marcus, president of Debmar Studios, which is selling Comedy Central's South Park
in syndication with more than 60% of the country already cleared. "The fact of the matter is, it puts more of a microscope on the editing of the show."

For South Park,
Comedy Central's top-rated program now entering its eighth season, the five edited versions screened aren't dramatically different from the originals, with such words and phrases as "goddammit," "Jesus Christ," "asshole," and "butt-plug," toned down to "dammit," "ass," and "butt."

Some phrases, such as "sucks ass" and "ass rammer," are nixed, but much of the original language remains. And, while broadcast viewers won't see Osama bin Laden's head get blown off by U.S. freedom fighters (however much they may want to), they'll still see Kenny die in some gruesome fashion in nearly every episode.

"There are some episodes that deal with violence, so there's a little bit of cleaning that up," Marcus says. "But those are easy. They have nothing to do with the storyline.

"But if they are having a seven-minute discussion of putting a penis into a vagina, I don't know how to keep it."

Out of the 155 episodes that will eventually be ready for syndication, Marcus says, some 15% are probably too dirty to air on broadcast TV.

In one episode, fictional network executives decide to allow the word "shit" to be uttered for the first time on broadcast TV. In the South Park
episode it was said 162 times over the course of the half-hour. That show won't be in the rotation.

"South Park
is always about what's right and what's wrong," says Sean Long, director of programming at Weigel Broadcasting, which bought the show for its stations in Chicago, Milwaukee, and South Bend, Ind. "I don't think what Janet Jackson did was right, but I don't think the industry should be overreacting. There should be lines of decency, but a lot of people are just trying to protect their necks and their assets."

Still, he acknowledges, "with all the heightened awareness about indecency and language, we are going to be very responsible with the show. It's not going to be held to a lower standard than any other program we air."

Meaning, what stays is the show's willingness to offend anyone and everyone with over-the-top racist stereotypes and ridiculous takes on current events.

Sex and the City, by contrast, poses other challenges as HBO and its partners in syndication—TBS, Tribune and other stations—start trimming it. And the trims are more noticeable. B&C saw three episodes headed for broadcast; they are largely intact, except there isn't much evidence of super-sex-charged Samantha. The show is live action, so editing racy dialogue is more difficult. Plus, the Sex and the City
girls, particularly Samantha, often have entire plot lines around some high-wattage sex issue.

For example, in one episode, Samantha wonders if she can continue a relationship with a man who has "funky spunk." In another, she learns about female ejaculation from her new lesbian lover. Charlotte dumps a guy who screams out "you bitch, you whore" when they are having sex.

Also, the episodes have to be chopped for time. On commercial-free HBO, episodes run 25-30 minutes. Broadcasters want 22-minute "half-hours" so they can insert commercials. Given the inevitable cuts, that time gap could make it easier for editors. HBO shot "coverage" on all of the sex scenes, so that should help, too. And the cast re-recorded some of the dialogue so it can be relooped.

The surgery on the TBS episodes is expected to be less severe because the network plans to insert commercials but let the show run longer than a half-hour. TBS wouldn't provide copies of any cleaned-up episodes. "Even if we cut 8%, it's still 92% Sex and the City," says Steve Koonin, executive vice president of TBS and TNT. "It's not about the sex and the language, it's about the women."

Even though the broadcast version will have to be more scrubbed-down than TBS's version, broadcast has 15 months to see how TBS handles it.

And the good thing for both shows is that Congress generally has as bad a case of attention deficit disorder as the South Park
boys. By fall 2005, Janet Jackson's halftime stunt should be forgotten and, with it, most of the anti-indecency hysteria.