JOHN CARMAN on TELEVISION -- `V' Stands For Victory On Pay Cable

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Thursday, March 7, 1996 · Page E1
© 1996 San Francisco Chronicle

JOHN CARMAN on TELEVISION -- `V' Stands For Victory On Pay Cable


Once the television industry takes a deep breath and rates programs for sex and violence, the channel I'd want to own is HBO.

HBO needn't worry about program content being rated. Its content already is rated.

For years, it's been telling viewers that movies and original programs they're about to see contain adult language, violence, nudity and, just in general, ``adult content.''

And the viewers have said, beam me up.

The same goes for the rest of the pay cable sector, including Showtime, Cinemax, The Movie Channel and the rest. But with nearly 20 million subscribers, HBO is the biggest.

People pay for HBO because they want to see uncut, uninterrupted movies, and made-for-HBO programs that are better or spicier than the broadcast networks provide.

The distinction between pay cable and the commercial networks will widen when a program ratings plan is implemented and TV sets are equipped with V-chips.

Details of a sex and violence ratings system remain a mystery -- the industry has until next January to figure out how it'll be done -- but TV will almost inevitably be blander.

The ratings will be more than a benign guide. They'll probably be calibrated to work in conjunction with V-chips, the electronic blocking devices that will be installed in newly manufactured TV sets. When programs reach a certain threshold on the ratings scale -- the TV equivalent of the R rating for motion pictures, perhaps -- the V-chip will block the program.

The decision to activate the chips, or leave them dormant, will be left to the sets' owners. But the V-chip will be used in enough households to sway television programming.

Will an ABC, CBS or NBC want to risk another ``NYPD Blue''-type series when it will automatically be blocked from, say, a third of the nation's TV households, thereby depressing the Nielsen ratings, scaring off advertisers and slicing into network profits?

Not likely. For the networks, and for most of the advertiser-supported cable channels, the safer course will be to give the public a full slate of programming suitable for viewing by all ages. The common denominator for TV devolves once again into a 10-year-old child.

That's a turnabout. Network TV used to cater to the family when members of the baby boom generation were children, because children controlled the dials. When that generation matured, television tried to grow up with it. Not skillfully or tastefully, necessarily, but programming certainly has a more adult slant today than 30 years ago. Now that maturity, if it can be called that, is imperiled.

HBO and its pay cable brethren aren't bound by Nielsen ratings and aren't vulnerable to skittish advertisers. They don't carry commercials. All they have to do is satisfy their subscribers. And the people who write those checks are adults.

Of course, the V-chip looms as a potential threat to pay cable, too. All those movies, and steamy original series such as Showtime's ``Red Shoe Diaries,'' would light a V-chip up like a stadium score board.

But it's hard to believe that the viewer who's eager to click the V-chip into active status is the same person who subscribes to HBO or Showtime. If they're worried about bringing televised sex and violence into their homes, why are they paying for those channels now?

No, the content ratings and V- chips should be an unintentional boon to programming services like HBO. They'll position themselves as adult alternatives for viewers seeking relief from PG sitcoms and gooey dramas.

If HBO and Showtime play their cards right, they'll begin investing more heavily in original programming. Television's more talented writers and producers have had a little whiff of freedom at the networks the past few years. Sometimes they've abused it. But they won't take kindly to the coming retreat.

For them, HBO will look more and more like a safe haven in a suffocating medium.

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