Risque business at nets

Aug 20, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The heat is on.
Program production costs are up, advertising dollars are down, and repurposing is the mantra of the moment as media-conglomerate executives try to squeeze every last dollar from content, their underlying asset.
So it is only to be expected that “sexing up” episodes of ultra-expensive, high-profile broadcast-network series that have a second run on ad-supported cable is under serious consideration.
The general plan under discussion is to shoot additional “coverage,” possibly with more nudity and tougher language, for network shows’ subsequent cable runs, Electronic Media has learned.
According to a senior cable source, talks are currently under way between executives at two broadcast networks and their cable counterparts about how to proceed.
But Court TV Chairman and CEO Henry Schleiff said he is unaware of any talks between cable and broadcast networks on the subject.
“Profit participants in these series will take to the idea because it will bring new cable audiences and new cable revenues to their series,” Mr. Schleiff said.
Court TV will air in late-night such high-profile off-network series as “Homicide,” “Profiler” and “NYPD Blue,” but those shows are not “repurposed” in the sense of the episodes airing immediately after their broadcast window.
“We’re not doing any repurposed programming in the sense of ABC playing simultaneously [a `Once and Again’ episode] on another network within a week,” Mr. Schleiff said. “We don’t have anything like that even with `NYPD Blue.”’
But the general concept of a different version for cable has merit, Mr. Schleiff said. “It’s worth experimenting, because I think you want to be able to say when it plays in `rerun’-which is a less classy term for repurposing-that you’re playing something that’s a little different.”
Cable lends itself to a racier version, Mr. Schleiff said. Repurposed broadcast series on cable will be on different nights, in different time periods, and will be seen by different audiences. The problems involved in shooting the coverage are “very surmountable,” he said, pointing to HBO’s “The Garry Shandling Show,” among others, which shot toned-down versions of its episodes expressly for syndication. “You have precedent in other series going from cable to syndication,” Mr. Schleiff said.
Among the repurposed series heading to dual broadcast/cable windows this year are “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (CBS and TNN), “Once and Again” (ABC and Lifetime), “24” (Fox and FX) and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” (NBC and USA).
Of course for years now, bare-it-all premium-pay series have covered up and toned down when they were sold into syndication. But not everyone believes that it is desirable, or even possible, to go in this reverse, racier direction. And top executives at some of the production entities involved in the new crop of repurposed-for-cable shows have flatly denied it will happen at all.
“That has never been in the plans for `Law & Order: Criminal Intent,”’ said a Studios USA source. “You shoot a script that would require the addition of content and [that] would mean that the broadcast or cable network would have to pay additional money for it. It’s easier to edit out curse words or delete suggestive scenes than [to] add them in.”
“I have not heard anything like this,” said a business-oriented executive at one of the broadcast networks said to be considering the risque ploy. “Everyone fails to miss the fact if we tried to do that, the FCC would go crazy and possibly revoke our broadcast licenses.”
But this is the least activist Federal Communications Commission in recent memory, so perhaps that is a far-fetched scenario. Still, this broadcast network executive raises another more bottom-line objection: “I don’t know how you make it more risque, because the cable networks have more units to sell,” this broadcast-network executive said. “Whether it is Turner or Lifetime, you just pull up their commercial load for each hour and [see] how their breaks are set up. Could they get extra time and be willing to reformat? I doubt it.”

But repurposing is not likely to involve reformatting. Episodes of, say, “Law & Order” and “Once and Again” would not necessarily be longer, because the tougher language or “action,” or the more undraped actor or the sexier scene would replace similar material in the broadcast version, not be added to it.
Another broadcast executive with another network that has a repurposed series in the works also highlighted the possibility of broadcast-network and cable-advertiser resistance. “If you got anything [that is] more racier and reaches more cable households, wouldn’t that hurt the broadcast networks and affiliates in the end?” the executive asked. “If there was more nudity, I think some more guys would watch it, but I don’t think it would be any easier selling it to advertisers.”
Of course, that will depend on which demographic the advertiser wants to reach. In today’s tough ad market, many advertisers may be willing to overlook questions of good taste and violent or sexual content to get the hard-to-reach young guys.