The next time Paulie Walnuts brutally smothers some old lady for the cash under her mattress to pay off Tony Soprano, blame your local news anchor.
That, oddly, is how HBO President Chris Albrecht and other programming executives justify the increasing amount of graphic violence they're putting on their networks: Local news stations are numbing audiences to violence; hence, they're more accepting of violence in their dramas.
At a general session last Wednesday at Broadband Plus, Albrecht said the violence of HBO mob drama The Sopranos
doesn't make him flinch. "I flinch at the news. I think the standard is being set by what's on local news and, to a certain extent, national news. There's nothing more graphic than seeing what happens in reality."
It's a novel twist on cable programmers' past justification that most of the violent scenes they air are in Hollywood movies. But, given the likes of homegrown shows The Sopranos
and Oz, Albrecht—who headed HBO's original programming for years—turned to a new rationalization.
He wasn't alone. Matt Blank, CEO of rival pay network Showtime, concurred: "The common denominator has been lowered considerably by what is news and how we deal with it. So those of us who have to address these kinds of issues turn to news first."
The key continues to be to present the view of the program creator, Albrecht said. "The fictional entertainment, or even documentary entertainment, is filtered through a filmmaker's sensibility and point of view. You have to honor that point of view; you have to honor that sensibility. That's how you get good creative work. The things that truly shock me are the really bad movies, because they have no point of view, or the things that I see on the news that are startlingly real but nevertheless graphic."
Also, responsibility lies with the viewer who has a choice of whether to subscribe to a pay network or not. Instead of constraining creators from depicting violence, said Albrecht, "the more appropriate [action] is to segregate it."