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Cutting edge TV only on cable now

Barney: Fickle advertisers, big budgets have networks avoiding controversy
/ Source: contributor

When the cowards at CBS decided not to televise their hotly debated miniseries about Ronald and Nancy Reagan, they dumped it off on their corporate sibling, Showtime, which enthusiastically embraced the hand-me-down. Apparently, one company’s poison is another’s golden opportunity.

And so, two weeks after “The Reagans” was to have aired in the middle of the big broadcast networks’ sweeps hypefest, it surfaced instead Nov. 30 on an upstart pay-cable station. And that move should tell you all you need to know about the state of television entertainment.

Cable, after all, is where the juice is these days. Cable is where you’ll find risk-takers and programming with creative passion and vision. As for the broadcast networks, well they obviously continue to be mired in a play-it-safe rut.

With big money and ratings at stake and numerous fickle advertisers to appease, broadcasters tend to operate in a climate of fear. Consequently, so much network fare is the bland residue of conservatism and compromise. There is little incentive to be unique and daring.

In contrast, cable often leads the way in providing bold, edgy shows that defy the formulas. By now, everyone is familiar with HBO and its string of high-quality hits, including “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Wire.” Those shows blow away almost anything the networks can offer.

But other cable outlets are making headway as well. Little FX has two of the most compelling and daring dramas on the air in “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck.” Comedy Central, which continues to push the envelope with “South Park,” also offers “The Daily Show,” the mock newscast that gleefully wallows in political satire — a form of humor the networks have all but abandoned.

And when it comes to innovative, buzz-generating shows, cable continues to make a splash in prime time. Last year MTV struck paydirt with “The Osbournes.” This year, Bravo grabbed gobs of attention with the hilarious “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

The trend is just as pervasive, if not more so, in made-for-television movies and miniseries, a genre that cable has dominated in recent years. While the networks generally stick to superficial explorations of current events (i.e. NBC’s disappointing “Saving Jessica Lynch”) and fluffy show-biz biopics, cable, led by HBO, churns out award-winning films that outclass even some of the better theatrical offerings.

On 'Angels' wings
Along those lines, it is certainly ironic that, while a skittish CBS was retreating from “The Reagans” in the face of extraordinary political pressure, HBO was going full steam ahead with “Angels In America,” Tony Kushner’s epic exploration of the sexual, racial, religious, political and social issues that gripped the country during the Reagan years as the AIDS epidemic spread.

Much of the furor that engulfed “The Reagans” was focused on a single line of dialogue in the film’s final script: Reagan, played by James Brolin, says of AIDS patients, “They that live in sin shall die in sin.” The screenwriter later admitted that there is no evidence Reagan ever uttered those words and the line was cut. (It also was out of the Showtime version). Still, CBS remained jittery.

There apparently were no such qualms with HBO and “Angels,” which is, among other things, a scathing indictment of how the Reagan administration’s indifference on the matter allowed the plague of AIDS to spiral during the 1980s. As New York Times critic Frank Rich so astutely noted, the makers of “Angels” don’t feel that they owe a president any sanctuary from free speech.

“Angels in America,” incidentally, boasts a stunning display of star power — Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson, among others — and a $60 million budget that is almost four times that of “The Reagans.” It debuts Dec. 7 and surely will be one of the finest things on television this year. It is almost impossible to imagine any broadcast network presenting such weighty material so faithfully, so bravely.

Meanwhile, “The Reagans,” aired on the cable network that has a history of making brave and risky choices. In recent years, Showtime has presented such controversial fare as “Lolita,” Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” and “Queer as Folk.” Is it any wonder the company’s slogan is “No limits”? When you dwell in the shadow of HBO, you work extra hard to call attention to yourself.

Considering all the media hub-bub over “The Reagans”, Showtime surely will attract much attention this weekend. And while it is unfortunate that the cable network reaches only 13 million households — compared to 100 million-plus for a broadcast network — at least Showtime, unlike cowardly CBS, is allowing viewers to judge the movie’s merits for themselves.

Chuck Barney is the television critic at the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times.