'Sopranos' Win Could Strike Chord with Networks Broadcasters May Argue for Leeway in Language, Sex

By Cox, Ted | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

'Sopranos' Win Could Strike Chord with Networks Broadcasters May Argue for Leeway in Language, Sex


Cox, Ted, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Ted Cox TV/Radio columnist

Believe it or not, there are probably a lot of broadcast TV executives quietly rooting for HBO's "The Sopranos" to become the first cable series to win an Emmy as best drama tonight.

Yes, it would be a huge step forward for cable in its long battle for equality with the six broadcast networks: CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, Warner Bros. and the United Paramount Network. But that's just the thing. The broadcast networks already know they're competing against cable. Over the summer, their combined share of the viewing audience slipped below 50 percent.

In order to compete with cable, they argue, they have to be free to do battle on equal terms. And while they enjoy the perks of being broadcast - dominating non-cable households and getting automatic access to cable systems through must-carry rules - they aren't crazy about the "responsibility" that goes with it.

Because broadcast TV is "the uninvited guest," coming into homes whether people want it or not, the broadcast networks are held to a higher moral standard than their cable counterparts.

For instance, viewers (and politicians) are still kvetching about the "family hour" at 7 p.m., even though the family hour has never really existed as a government-regulated bastion of family viewing. Even when "family" shows did dominate the 7 p.m. prime-time hour, this was a self-imposed industry guideline with plenty of wiggle room.

If you've seen some of the shows moving to 7 p.m. this fall - such as ABC's randy "Spin City" and NBC's even more sex-obsessed "Just Shoot Me" - you know the "family hour" is long gone.

If the networks don't exactly feel guilty about its demise, that doesn't mean they're immune to criticism. That's why many execs would welcome a "Sopranos" victory.

"The Sopranos," which leads all series with 16 Emmy nominations, is a mildly comic but more or less realistic HBO series about a sad-sack mob boss who undergoes therapy. It features rampant profanity, untempered violence and sex that can be described as healthily amoral at best and downright humiliating at worst.

In writing, acting, directing and overall execution, "The Sopranos" was easily the best drama on TV last season. It won the nationwide end-of-season poll of TV critics conducted by the Chicago-based industry publication Electronic Media. But if the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences - which has become notoriously conservative over the years - has the nerve to acknowledge it as the current standard in TV drama, then a whole new door opens up in the industry.

Fox's new series "Action," a brutal and biting show-biz satire, debuts this week with an expletive-laden (albeit bleeped-out) script and scenes that include a prostitute sexually stimulating Keanu Reeves at a movie screening.

Even though it is one of the better shows of the fall, "Action" figures to take heavy heat from outraged viewers - unless Fox can argue it is simply trying to keep pace with what's considered top quality in the industry by citing a "Sopranos" victory. And if Fox gets away with it, others will follow.

Steven Bochco, David Kelley and Dick Wolf are already considered three of the more daring producers in TV, and if their shows "NYPD Blue," "The Practice" and "Law & Order" get topped by "The Sopranos," you can bet they'll push the envelope more than ever as the season progresses.

So the 51st annual Emmy Awards, which take place at 7 p.m. today in Los Angeles, broadcast locally on Fox WFLD Channel 32, aren't just an industry showcase. They could have a major influence on the sort of TV that viewers will see as soon as next year.

That said, a "Sopranos" win is anything but a foregone conclusion. As recently as two years ago the cable sitcom "Larry Sanders" was shut out without a single Emmy after 16 nominations.

Not only does "The Sopranos" face stiff competition in the category of outstanding drama series, where each of the other nominees - "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order," "The Practice" and "ER" - has won before, it faces entrenched favorites such as Dennis Franz, Jimmy Smits, Gillian Anderson and Christine Lahti in the acting categories. …

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