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HBO’s Bleeping Little Secret

Aug 22, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The catchphrase “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” has been so persuasive it was a shock to discover that on rare occasions HBO is at least a little like TV.

It turns out that the premium cable channel takes its cues from the government arbiters to which it happily does not have to knuckle under for anything: the Federal Communications Commission, which can fine broadcast networks and fine or lift the licenses of local broadcasters who offend viewers.

Indeed, it turns out that the main HBO channel has a “long-standing rule of no R-rated or adult-rated programming before 8 p.m.,” said Dave Baldwin, the executive VP of program planning, “though we have relaxed that rule considerably in the digital age on our multiplex channels.”

And so it was that when the premium cable channel that has made violence an art form, profanity a second language and free-for-all sex an everyday event scheduled “‘Six Feet Under: 2001-2005: In Memoriam” at 5 p.m. (ET) one afternoon last week on HBO proper, it bleeped adult language.

To anyone who has stuck with the Fisher family through morose thick and manic thin over five years, the blips of silence were in their own way as shocking as, say, the fantasy in which Billy (Jeremy Sisto) and Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) touched again on the unsettling and recurring theme of sibling incest.

“In rare instances where you have a piece like this, which serves as much as promotion for the finale as it does a real piece of programming, then you want to expose it just as you would any other ad or promo, in as many places as possible,” Mr. Baldwin said.

“The same thing would go for a baseball documentary, for example, where a couple of guys would use some salty language that ordinarily would keep it away from daytime, or something like [‘Costas Now’], where someone’s on live and starts swearing or something. The overall content is good and certainly acceptable, but you don’t want to waste a play to a different audience.”

“You get access to different demography in different dayparts,” Mr. Baldwin explained. “We wanted to maximize that reach but wanted to really be sure we weren’t running afoul of our own rule sets in terms of content.”

Subscribers need not fear creeping prudery. HBO handles most content questions by scheduling adult-related programming in adult-oriented time slots or on the digital multiplex channels.

“We never edit our theatrical movies, and in most cases, I would say 98 to 99 percent of our cases, don’t do any editing of our regular shows,” Mr. Baldwin said.

“The rules of content have been relaxed a great deal, not only on HBO but also for Showtime and Starz and Cinemax, because of the realization that, you know, there’s an awful lot of content on the television dial and one has to also trust in the fact that in the daytime you probably do have parents around. If you have children unsupervised in the daytime hours, then it’s certainly hard [for programmers] to police that.”