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.