'SNL' getting dirty as 'Sopranos' cleans up

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For the majority of the country unwilling to cough up hundreds of dollars in premium-cable subscription fees or multiseason DVD purchases, this is a terrific week. Two of HBO's reigning masterpieces, "The Sopranos" and "The Wire," start their off-network syndication runs Monday on A&E and BET, respectively.

But there is a catch for newcomers to these series: Both will be edited for language, nudity and violence. Basic cable has stricter content standards than premium cable, so if "Sopranos" fans were looking forward to strippers without pasties at the Bada Bing, their disappointment with A&E will be profound.

However, after taking an advance glimpse at A&E's edit of "Sopranos," I have to say it proves that a few judicious snips to a series can be made without entirely snuffing its profane soul. It's not the same "Sopranos" -- some of the substitutions for the F-bomb are about as seamless as the English-language dubbing in a ninja movie -- but it isn't all that different, either.

HBO's bustling syndication business is strange when you think back to NBC chairman Bob Wright famously griping in 2001 that the R-rated stylings of "Sopranos" posed a competitive problem. Could he ever have anticipated premium cable would grow its business by cleaning up its content?

And perhaps even more improbably, NBC's own "Saturday Night Live" recently pointed the way for broadcasters to boost their bottom line by shifting in the opposite direction.

But first consider premium cable, which would have presumably pressed its natural advantage with the most envelope-pushing programming possible. And there always will be some of that -- the woolly Western "Deadwood" may be HBO's hardest syndication sale.

But ever since "Sex and the City" worked wonders for TBS, it seems as if the generation of premium programming that followed it has been less graphic. Cut a few gratuitous nude scenes, and "Entourage" is practically tailor-made for Spike TV or Comedy Central. As provocative as the polygamist premise is on "Big Love," it still is essentially a family drama that TNT or USA could make its own.

Fellow premium cabler Showtime seems just as well poised to turn its latest batch of original programs into syndicated winners. "Dexter" and "Sleeper Cell" are about a serial killer and a terrorist group, respectively, but with minimal editing, even these shows could work on broadcast. There isn't any gore on display on "Dexter" that you haven't already seen on "CSI," and "Sleeper" is tackling similar territory to another CBS staple, "The Unit."

Also consider that premium cable practically created the optimal conditions for its aftermarket by prompting basic cable and broadcast to get more risque in order to capture HBO-style sizzle. For example, FX may have well shot past HBO and Showtime on the edge-o-meter with its new drama "Dirt," a seamy series featuring love scenes between star Courteney Cox and her vibrator.

How quaint it now seems that the series that made Cox famous, NBC's "Friends," was once considered among TV's raciest. The peacock recently reset that bar with the Dec. 16 "SNL" sketch dubbed "Dick in a Box," a faux music video featuring actors singing of gift-wrapping their own genitalia. While the word "dick" was bleeped 16 times, an uncensored version was released online, where it generated millions of streams.

I'm convinced that "Box" is a sign of things to come. Which broadcaster will be the first to charge viewers a nominal fee to access more graphic versions of favorite shows on unregulated digital platforms such as online or VOD? Think of what Steven Bochco could do with his next primetime effort: a tasteful sex scene without those strategically arrayed shadows or profanity-laced dialogue complete with F-bombs.

Shifting content standards has always been a defensive maneuver in the TV industry. Watch how the broadcasters, like cable before them, treat it as an opportunity.
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