Are the FCC and basic cable headed for a showdown? As broadcast TV draws heat on ''decency,'' FX, MTV, and others get raunchier

By Steve Daly
Updated September 02, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

Just when you thought cable TV had crossed every boundary, here comes HBO’s Rome. The heavily promoted series flaunts male full-frontal nudity bolder than on HBO’s previous envelope pusher Oz, along with wildly hedonistic sex. And in an upcoming episode, viewers will be treated to a soldier exclaiming that a prostitute is so expensive, she had better perform ”like Helen of Troy with her a– on fire.” Now there’s something you didn’t hear in Gladiator.

Sure, it’s pay cable. But surf around some neighboring stations and you’ll find plenty of saucy stuff on basic cable, too — especially on the standard-bearer of blue, FX: from errant enemas on Starved to raucous sex on Rescue Me to Did he just say that? dialogue on The Shield. Profanities tumble out in profusion on Comedy Central, and over on Cartoon Network, the Adult Swim late-night show The Venture Brothers isn’t afraid of erectile humor. On MTV2’s subversive puppets-and-‘toons program Wonder Showzen and the ”extreme sketch comedy” show Stankervision, you’ll find outlandish, beyond-South Park scatology (including a kid who’s a literal potty mouth) — perfect for filling time between MTV videos featuring Jessica Simpson lathering up a car or Shakira humping the floor.

All of which demonstrates how TV has developed a seriously split personality in the year and a half since l’affaire Janet Jackson. While the broadcast networks have grown more skittish (except toward violence in police procedural shows, which gets more graphic every season), cable folks have continued to rely on sex and profanity as de rigueur enticements. ”It’s been pushed to an extreme,” says Tim Winter, executive director of Parents Television Council, a prominent watchdog group. ”The basic cable networks now feel a need to compete against HBO.” Moreover, everyone in the entertainment food chain feels pressure to compete with unrated DVDs of randy comedies (originally tamed to an R rating for theaters), spicy websites for stand-up comedians such as Dane Cook, and sexed-up videogames like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In Winter’s opinion, it’s an arms race of outrageousness. ”You have basically a spiral,” he says. ”The gravity of one affects the others.”

But wait a minute. What about the Federal Communications Commission? Didn’t it crack down on TV standards? Yep, but only broadcast standards. While the six broadcast nets and PBS are all subject to FCC obscenity and indecency restrictions (which generally focus on issues of sexuality and language rather than violence — hence all those grisly crime shows), cable networks aren’t subject to such review. As a result, some cable show runners say they’re feeling little pressure to curb their enthusiasm for the profane. ”This year, I’ve heard less from standards and practices than ever before,” says Ryan Murphy, creator of FX’s sexually precocious plastic-surgeon show Nip/Tuck. ”I’m surprised. I thought the climate since the election was more conservative, and would turn into this big battle.”

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