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Cable's bill

Cable TV gives viewers more choices, but the price is ever-raunchier fare, even on the broadcast networks

As of this summer, cable TV channels have passed free, over-the-air broadcast networks in attracting prime-time viewers.

According to Nielsen Media Research, since Memorial Day, 53 percent of prime-time viewers watched one of the ad-supported cable channels. Only 37 percent watched one of the seven broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, WB, UPN, PAX).

The era of free TV seems to be ending. More than 80 percent of American television owners now subscribe to cable or satellite, and the 174 cable channels are eclipsing the "Big Three" networks.

In many ways, this is a good thing. Instead of only a handful of broadcasters monopolizing news and entertainment, viewers now have access to a wide range of choices, from family-friendly children's channels to the conservative Fox News Channel. Viewers can tune in to channels that zero in on their specialized interests-history, cooking, golf-and can refuse to be part of the mass market whose lowest common denominator rendered broadcast TV such a vast wasteland.

And yet, the proliferation of channels will push all television fare-including that of the broadcast networks-to become raunchier.

The Federal Communications Commission regulates broadcast TV. Since they operate over "public airwaves," local network affiliates fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The "Golden Age of Television" in the 1950s featured strict adherence to a broadcast code that restricted depictions of sex, violence, and bad language and which required the upholding of moral values-limits that by no means prevented high-quality programming, such as Playhouse 90 and Jack Benny.

Although the concept of "decency" has been stretched almost beyond recognition since those days, a station could still conceivably lose its license if it broadcast obscenity or pornography.

Cable, though, carries no such restrictions. Since it is a subscriber-only service-rather than an over-the-public-airwaves service freely available to everyone-the government claims no jurisdiction over content.

Thus, from the beginning of cable TV, so called "premium" channels-those with no commercials and that make money solely from extra subscriber fees-featured R-rated movies, with all of their nudity, gore, and bad language uncut. Today, such channels go even further, with HBO's Real Sex, Showtime's homosexual soap opera Queer as Folk, and hard-core pornography on digital cable's pay-for-view.

But "basic cable"-that is, the package of channels included with the normal monthly cable bill-is advertiser supported. Although under no FCC decency regulations, basic cable channels still have to be sensitive to what advertisers and the public will tolerate. Thus, basic cable channels for the most part voluntarily comply with the industry's rating system, bleeping out bad language and covering nudity with a pixilated blur.

The result is a self-regulatory system based on free-market principles, as opposed to regulation by the federal government, the sort of morality-by-capitalism solution that conservatives love.

The free market, though, evidently has a supply-and-demand dynamic for noxious material, which need only appeal to a niche market on cable. Basic cable channels increasingly feel free to air shows like E!'s Howard Stern Show, featuring salacious interviews with porn stars, Comedy Central's South Park, a cartoon featuring filthy-mouthed grade-schoolers, and MTV's Undressed, about teenagers having sex.

Ironically, one impetus to more raunch is the search for quality. The premium channels have recently made their own hit series, such as HBO's Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, and the mafia soap opera The Sopranos. These really are fresh, original, and well done, for all of their bad language, nudity, and, in the case of The Sopranos, gore. These are the shows that create the water-cooler buzz, and which the cool people in the television industry want to emulate.

In the meantime, basic cable channels, which once had little programming beyond reruns of old network classics, have become so successful that they now also produce series of their own. Some of these shows, like USA's Monk, about the sleuthings of an obsessive-compulsive detective, are excellent without resorting to objectionable content. But the biggest hit with both viewers and critics is The Shield on FX, a drama about a mean cop replete with naked corpses, macho cursing, and graphic police brutality.

Executives of the broadcast networks-which still command, on a per-channel basis, the biggest audiences-are now saying that they need to emulate cable. This means "edgier," or raunchier, fare.

Now that most Americans watch broadcast TV not over the public airwaves but by subscribing to cable or satellite, the differences between free TV and pay TV will grow ever smaller. Watch for more taboos to be broken during the upcoming television season. Or, better yet, don't watch.

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Idol smashing

Fox's new reality show has become a hit by being judgmental and encouraging the audience to set standards

For decades, the myth of relativism-that what is true for you may not be true for me-has paralyzed Americans' intelligence, ethics, and religion.

Lately, though, events seem to be conspiring against the relativists. The popping of the stock market bubble, resulting in the disappearance of billions of dollars, seems to have the uncontrollable quality of an objective fact, rather than being the personal construction of the investor's brain. Positive thinking does not seem to make it rain in this summer's drought-plagued states, nor does it keep the fires from burning.

Moral issues too have a sudden black-and-white quality. Child abductions and murders really do seem to be evil acts, in a way that resists appeals to "alternative values." The dignity of the rescued miners-and their rescuers-seems "good," in an objective way that many people had forgotten.

Religious relativism, one would think, has been struck a blow, as we learn more and more about the theology of the Islamic terrorists. Surely there is a difference between a religious education that teaches little children to hate, kill, and commit suicide, and the lessons of a typical Christian Sunday school. A religion of utter oppression that practices murderous jihad against innocent bystanders is surely not "just as valid" as one that promotes love, justice, and freedom.

And yet, relativism dies hard. Many Americans persist in their relativism in the face of all evidence, and religious relativism may be stronger than ever.

But the ever-shifting foundations of relativism keep being undermined. Just as the pop culture of the entertainment industry has promulgated relativism by reducing all issues to a matter of personal taste, a TV show has now become a hit by being judgmental and by encouraging its audience to set some standards.

American Idol (Fox) has become perhaps the most successful new show of the summer. (The week of July 28, Nielsen ratings ranked the program as the 11th most-watched TV show. It was No. 2 among the coveted demographic of 18- to 34-year-olds.)

An American version of a British program, American Idol is a combination of Star Search and Survivor. The reality program exposed 100 wannabe singing sensations to reality. Performing before a panel of judges, the 100 were winnowed down to 50; then the 50 to 10. Then the decisions are turned over to viewers, as week by week, the audience calls in their votes for who gets the hook. The one left standing wins a recording contract.

What makes the show compelling, though, is one of the judges, British record producer Simon Cowell. Whereas the other judges, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, try to be tactful and supportive, Mr. Cowell, in a brutally honest way, actually renders judgments about the merits of the performances.

"Jenny, that was extraordinary," he told one young woman. "Unfortunately, extraordinarily bad." A young man earned a different kind of distinction: "I can honestly say you are the worst singer in America."

Afterwards, sympathetic interviewers ask the "losers"-another common epithet of Mr. Cowell's-the ubiquitous media question of how they feel. They indignantly invoke all of the clichés of relativism: "That's just his opinion." "He doesn't have the right to impose his beliefs on me." "Everybody is different."

But the audience, for the most part, realizes that he is right. Some of the first-round singers were painfully off-key. Many were embarrassingly bad. And yet, they displayed the arrogance of prima donnas and presumed to place themselves above criticism. As Mr. Cowell told one furious contestant who was arguing with him-on the basis that good and bad are relative-"What angers me is that people like yourself who have the most attitude have the least talent."

Mr. Cowell's remarks are so shocking to hear, such violations of our therapeutic cultural taboos, that they are oddly refreshing, even exhilarating. Although many viewers call him mean and nasty, he is clearly the real star of the show.

And with the group winnowed down by the judges to 10, the audience gets to play the part of Mr. Cowell. The performers do their numbers, the judges comment, and then it is up to the audience to cut the losers. This is not a job for relativists.

True, American Idol has its limits. All of the contestants are boy band or Britney Spears clones. One reality it exposes is the vacuousness of the pop music scene. At one point, Mr. Cowell tells an overweight teenager with a lovely voice that, because of her appearance, there is no way she can make it in today's music business.

Maybe the next season could get more serious. They could take their title literally, and stage competition between the world's religions. Which deity is an American idol, and which is the real thing?

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City that sleeps around

It's a huge cultural phenomenon, but HBO's sitcom Sex and the City is, in almost every way, as bad as it sounds

HBO's weekly sitcom Sex and the City made its season debut this month with all of the fanfare normally reserved for feature films: a star-studded red-carpet premiere, countless reviews and fawning feature stories, and near ubiquitous advertising. The show has become a cultural landmark-even though relatively few Americans actually see it.

Considering the content of SATC, this is a good thing. While it draws a large audience for premium cable (its debut episode last season drew 7.3 million viewers, the series' largest audience to date), top-rated network television shows regularly draw double or triple that number. HBO offers its channel lineup only to cable subscribers who pay an additional fee, meaning that HBO programming is available only in a limited number of homes nationwide

So although the rest of us-non-HBO subscribers, that is-don't have easy access to SATC, it's far from off the cultural radar. The show is now entering its fifth season, amid continued fanfare. Last year, SATC made television history by becoming the first cable program to win the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy award.

When nominations for the 2002 Emmys were announced this month, SATC's 10 nominations helped push HBO ahead of all other networks, with 94 total nominations. Critics love SATC, taking for granted that the series is the touchstone of modern, mature, self-aware attitudes toward female sexuality and romantic relationships.

SATC follows the lives of four single/married/divorced (depending on the season) women living in New York City. Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) is the show's real protagonist, a sex columnist now writing for Vogue. Each of her three friends fits a different niche that provides fodder for Carrie's column: Samantha, sex-obsessed (even more than the others, really) and abrasive; Miranda, cynical and independent; and Charlotte, naïve and idealistic.

And so the show has charted the trials and travails of these four women: dating, careers, marriage, childbirth, and, of course, first and foremost, copulation. As the title suggests, this is a show about sex: wanting it, having it, talking about it, and, to a lesser degree, facing the emotional and physical repercussions associated with it.

Is it as bad as it sounds? In almost every way, yes. The language is utterly foul. And, this being HBO, where the limited standards of decency taken for granted by other networks are sneered at, the content is often graphic. This season's debut episode featured three of the four main characters topless, in three separate scenes. For a show so squarely aimed at a female audience, and so proud of its estrogen-empowering credentials, this in itself seems hypocritical.

SATC distinguishes itself from the vapid offerings of other networks by more than its raunchiness, however; so in some ways it's not surprising that the show has many fans. It has a strong ensemble cast, attracts seasoned supporting players, and boasts an award-winning writing team. (The show's writers are predominantly female, but also include, tellingly, several homosexual males.)

The plot, stretching from episode to episode, is linear, allowing for much more character development than one would typically find in the sitcom format. Each show is united in plot and subplot around a common theme, always encapsulated in the question posed at the beginning of one of Carrie's columns. The dialogue is often clever, and certainly the writing is done at a higher level than most of the competition.

But the collaborative efforts of a talented team are no excuse for this profane, destructive show. After watching just a few episodes available on video and the latest episode to be aired on HBO, I've already lost count of the number of men with whom these women have slept. The show is ostensibly about strong, independent women, but the twin obsessions with sex and the city of New York in the end come off more pathetic than powerful.

SATC is really, fundamentally, about self-indulgence. Sarah Jessica Parker has admitted that women exactly like Carrie and her friends may not really exist, but she said that the scenarios they encounter contain a certain emotional reality to which viewers-especially women-connect. In truth, it's on an emotional level that this show is least engaging, and most destructive.

Sure, there are sometimes negative consequences to the characters' immoderate pleasures, but there is always another, substitutionary indulgence right around the corner that will make things right. If Carrie is burned in a relationship, it's nothing that her fabulous New York lifestyle, sophisticated friends, or a shopping spree at Barney's can't soothe. An attractive fantasy for many, perhaps. But emotionally honest? Absolutely not.

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