Not So Hot Sex and the City

It’s being widely reported in today’s papers that The Tribune Company as acquired the syndication rights to HBO’s Sex and the City. This initially sounds like a great deal: Sex and the City already boasts phenomenally high ratings on HBO, despite limited availability (HBO is only in one-third of American households), and the Tribune Co's much larger broadcast network should only increase these ratings. However, there’s a bit of a catch with the acquisition: since the Tribune Company owns broadcast stations in 26 major markets, it will have to “sanitize” its acquisition in order to make it palatable to regulators, viewers, and advertisers in those areas. The problem for the Tribune Company is that the essence of Sex and the City lies in its risqué plotlines—each episode tends to hinge on how Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha deal with what HBO euphemistically refers to as “objectionable content”—e.g. their attitudes towards various types of sex. Most of the show’s power (particularly in the first few seasons) derived from the fact that it dealt frankly and accurately, with “taboo” topics that could only be addressed via innuendo and double-entendre on network shows like Friends or Will & Grace. In order to make Sex palatable to a mainstream audience, HBO has apparently shot “clean” versions of each episode, replacing racy dialogue with “alternative language” (meaning that Samantha won’t be left with very many lines at all), and cutting out nudity and the aforementioned “objectionable content” altogether (meaning that Samantha won’t be left with very many scenes, either). (You can read the Tribune Co’s press release, which noticeably avoids the prickly issue of editing “objectionable content,” here.)

So the big question is whether Sex will still be any good in its cleaned-up form, and whether viewers will tune in to censored episodes, when they can easily rent the saucier version on DVD? It’s our opinion that the Tribune Company is running a huge risk: Sex’s audience, which consists primarily of extremely media savvy Gen X and Gen Y women, is unlikely to respond well to any type of editing that would dilute the wit and spark of Sex and The City. (After all, who’d want to watch a show that purports to deal directly with sex, but only goes to second base?) Moreover, in other media industries, like the music business, where firms have issued “clean” versions of albums or content alongside the “unclean” or “real” version (e.g. a bleeped-out version of Eminem), sales of the edited version typically constitute about 10%-15% of sales (see this reprinted NY Times article for details.) If the same logic applies to a PG-version of Sex, which currently averages about 6m viewers an episode, the Tribune Company can expect about 600K viewers an episode. And considering the price they’re reportedly paying (between $500-$750K an episode, according to the Wall Street Journal) that sounds like a pretty steep price to pay.

Of course, it could also be argued that recent seasons of Sex—particularly the last two seasons—are much less racy in content, and that the show has essentially become more of a soap opera than a comedy of bedroom manners during this period. The relatively unsalacious nature of today's Sex and the City means that the Tribune Company would be able to preserve the content—and the viewership—of Sex's most recent episode for a mainstream consumption, and recoup their investment. It might also be true that given changing societal attitudes towards sex in general, that HBO might have to edit a lot less than expected, meaning that the show can retain its punch and allowing the Tribune Co. to earn a reasonable return on their investment. In any event, it’s going to be interesting to see how faithful the Tribune Co can be to the original series, and how viewers will react to a show that’s been altered for their protection.

Posted by Matt Percy | Permalink | Comments (0)