Sexless and the city

Feb 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Graphic sex scenes and unfettered language made HBO’s “Sex and the City” a watercooler show and Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte household names. Without the risque content and sexy talk, would viewers still watch?
HBO thinks so and has been shopping a sanitized version of “Sex and the City” to the broadcast networks with a price tag big enough to keep even Carrie Bradshaw in new shoes for life. The asking price is around $3 million an episode, compared with the average license fee on a first-year sitcom of around $600,000 to $700,000 an episode.
NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox were pitched the show. NBC has no interest and doesn’t plan to bid on it, an NBC spokesperson said. An ABC spokesperson said ABC passed on it. CBS confirmed the show was pitched to the network but would not comment on its interest. Fox declined to comment.
The deadline for network bids was said to be last Friday. An HBO spokesperson would only say that preliminary conversations with the networks have taken place.
Some network executives wonder whether viewers will be seduced by the show without the graphic sex scenes and language that made it a buzz in the first place.
Laura Caraccioli, VP and director, Starcom MediaVest Group Entertainment in Chicago, said a sanitized version could work if creator Darren Star is fully supportive of the new version. However, “It is `Sex and the City.’ When you take out the sex part, do you take out the personality of the show?” she asked. “It might destroy some of the credibility of the show.”
Several network executives said it would be difficult to put “Sex and the City” on the fall schedules because no one wants to go into the upfronts with a show that one-third of the country has already seen. That may be especially true when that one-third is likely to be the upscale, higher-income viewers networks typically target.
Ms. Caraccioli said advertisers might not find the broadcast version to be a very compelling prime-time buy.
“I’d hate to say they’d be reluctant to do it, [but] it would seem like yesterday’s news,” she said. “It’s done. It’s reached its course. It’s been branded as an HBO show.”
If HBO were to pitch it by adding special extras-such as introductions by series star Sarah Jessica Parker or commentary for each episode-rather than just deleting scenes, she said that would refresh it enough to make it a more interesting buy for advertisers.
Where “Sex” could be a nice addition is as a way to fill in midseason holes or anchor a night in the summer. All the networks are looking to acquire more original programming for this summer after seeing reality shows such as “American Idol” and “Survivor” become hits. NBC has already said 60 percent of its schedule will be original this summer, and Fox plans to launch some of its fall scripted series in the middle of the summer.
The “Sex” sales effort is being spearheaded by Scott Carlin, a longtime syndication vet who was hired by HBO as president of program distribution in September and charged with exploring off-network opportunities for HBO’s original series.
Mr. Carlin made the rounds at the broadcast networks at the end of January with the pitch that two-thirds of the country hasn’t seen the series and that it can be edited to broadcast-acceptable standards. HBO is seen in about 35 million households. “Sex and the City” averaged a 14.4 rating and 22 share in its cable universe last season.
As part of his pitch, Mr. Carlin brought along four episodes edited for network broadcast by the original editors as examples. Most “Sex” episodes run longer than the 22 minutes a network allots for a 30-minute show, so they would have to be edited in any case for a network run.
HBO has produced 74 episodes of “Sex” over five seasons, with another 20 to be produced in its sixth and final season this year. HBO expects to sell about 90 episodes, under the assumption that some can’t be edited enough to get rid of racy content, sources said.
The big question is whether there will be any takers at the $3 million-an-episode price tag, which could add up to as much as $270 million. That question becomes especially difficult if the plan is to use it as a fill-in or summer show, when viewing levels would be lower. And there’s no guarantee that a broadcast version of “Sex and the City” would perform better than a far less expensive first-year sitcom.
One option that HBO is said to be amenable to is a dual network and basic-cable run that could make the series more affordable for a broadcast network that also owns a compatible cable outlet that could split costs. NBC recently acquired Bravo; CBS parent Viacom owns MTV and TNN; and Fox owns FX.
A network run for “Sex and the City” wouldn’t set a precedent. HBO’s “Dream On” and “Tales From the Crypt” both had brief network runs on Fox in the ’90s, and last summer USA’s “Monk” began airing on ABC.