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Playing Dirty

3/24/2006 07:00:00 PM Eastern

No sooner had those loco FCC indecency rulings and record fines been issued than the shockwaves began to ripple. Last week, The WB network chief Garth Ancier told executive producer Tom Fontana to clip a couple of sexy scenes from his higher-ed drama The Bedford Diaries before it debuts this Wednesday. A disheartened Fontana says he understands the order to cut was just network business. Still, the guy behind such shows as Homicide and Oz says that, going forward, he'll only work on cable. “I'm going to the land I know,” Fontana says. “Of course, at one point, I thought I knew broadcast.”

Ancier, meanwhile, made the most of a bad situation. Perhaps recalling his early days at Fox, when a national outcry sparked by a desperate housewife, Terry Rakolta, from Michigan turned the delightfully offensive sitcom Married with Children—and its fledgling network—into a hit, Ancier immediately put the uncut version of Bedford on The WB Web site.

You'd think the censorship crowd would've figured out by now that branding a program offensive only turns it into must-see TV—even if these days it's must-see TV on the Web. We don't have numbers yet, but my educated guess is that those too-hot-for-network scenes of bi-curious college girls sucking face on a barroom dare have already generated some serious online traffic. No doubt YouTube, the viral-video site of the moment, will collect the naughty bits, and the URL will be e-mailed coast to coast.

That's what happened with the teenage orgy scene from Without a Trace that got more than 100 CBS stations slapped with a total of $3.6 million in fine from the FCC. That isn't exactly pocket change, but it may be some consolation to CBS that thousands of people who've never watched the series have discovered it thanks to that steamy clip. (To those of you in that group, don't be fooled—it's hardly representative of Jerry Bruckheimer's police procedural.)

I can't help but think the sting of the fine was eased at least somewhat by the free marketing the show is receiving online.

Don't misunderstand. I believe the FCC's draconian indecency fines are bad policy and hurt the industry. But the inevitable opportunities they've created have already revealed themselves. More than one producer I've spoken to is excited at the prospect of repurposing any risqué material for DVD.

Indeed, DVD collections of comedies, dramas and reality shows have been picking up the slack from the limp market for syndicated reruns, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars. TV products currently represent some 20% of the home-video market, with uncensored versions of programs like Cops and The Jerry Springer Show scoring big.

In this week's B&C, CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler claims that the recent wave of FCC indecency rulings has had no impact on the development process (see page 3).

Sure, the networks can afford some leeway when pilots are being made, but you best believe that, when it comes time to make up the fall schedule, they'll be thinking about those fines. They know they'll have to tone things down more than in recent seasons if they want to play in the prime time garden.

But I wouldn't be surprised if some of those shows shoot some R-rated stuff anyway. You never know what might leak onto the Web and wind up in a future marketing campaign for those “uncut” DVD collections.

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bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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