Changing channels

Television: As network audiences shrink, premium cable providers increase original programming.

September 06, 2001

THIS SUNDAY, Home Box Office begins airing a 10-part World War II series called "Band of Brothers." The production price tag is $125 million - or 10 times the cost of an average hour of television drama and three times the cost of an episode of "The West Wing."

Premium cable providers are no longer content with just running Hollywood movies. With half a dozen or more channels to fill in their lineups, industry leaders HBO and Showtime increasingly challenge networks as producers of original programming.

The reason is understandable: More Americans now watch cable or satellite than off-the-air affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, WB, UPN or PAX.

Only a fraction of cable and satellite subscribers take a premium package, though. In order to grow, premium providers have to increase their subscriber base. They need original hit shows to lure more viewers into shelling out monthly fees.

Because they are not constrained by network rules or Federal Communications Commission strictures, premium cable productions have brought scripted realism to new levels. No obscenity seems too extreme. Depictions of violence and sex are as graphic as the most explicit R-rated movies.

The networks are taking notice. As the fall season begins, some producers are trying to persuade network censors to give them more leeway on describing sexual activities. They also argue that bans on four-letter words put them at a competitive disadvantage.

In earlier days, television was criticized for airing too much escapist programming. Those innocent fantasies now look outright inviting.

All the contrived realism is killing us.

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