Why Censoring Sex Changed Television for the Better

How the censorship laws of the '90s resulted in the great television of today

BY JOHANNAH KING-SLUTZKY

If you read any cultural critic on the subject of television they'll probably tell you that The Sopranos was a landmark in the history of the medium. Wikipedia, which has its own article on quality TV, is as good a marker of The Sopranos's cultural legacy as any:

Quality television...describe[s] a...style of television programming that [critics] argue is of higher quality, due to its subject matter, style, or content....[W]ith the development of cable TV network specialty channels in the 1980s and 1990s, US cable channels such as HBO made a number of television shows that some television critics argued were "quality television", such as The Sopranos.

The Sopranos has become contemporary parlance's stand-in for what good TV means. If you ask the people who study it—and yes, there are Sopranos scholars—they'll tell you that James Gandolfini's small-screen home changed TV permanently by cooking the perfect media soup—one made of longer narrative, a high budget, visual craftsmanship, and serious-chops acting. Many critics include The Wire or Twin Peaks in this formulation as well, but basically, if you like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or House of Cards, you owe The Sopranos your thanks.

What's particularly interesting about The Sopranos is the way its success relates to TV as an evolving institution. In an article published in Slate on Thursday, business correspondent Matthew Yglesias had this to say about our favorite mobster TV show: “The Sopranos is...the product of real business model innovation. It...turned a certain kind of corner about what kinds of programming could be commercially viable and what aspirations it makes sense to finance.” Specifically, Yglesias is talking about pay-for-service cable stations like HBO and Showtime, whose business models changed the definition of successful viewership. “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” said H.L. Mencken—a platitude which was also famously paraphrased in the series finale of The Sopranos.

Network TV makes money by attracting a broad viewership, which means it's in network TV's best interest to keep content simple and varied. The Sopranos, however, was never a ratings machine: it generated income for HBO by being good enough that people would pay for it. Where a show like The Voice makes money by being popular and free to watch, The Sopranos made money by being niche and costly. Potential viewers had to like the program enough that they would pay for HBO subscription, and that meant The Sopranos had to be really fucking good.

But it didn't just have to be entertaining. It also had to be demonstrably different from the free television you could pick up with basic cable or a pair of rabbit ears. This was explicit in Sopranos-era HBO's business strategy, whose slogan from 1996 through 2009 was the much punned-upon “It's not TV. It's HBO.” The Sopranos marked HBO's singularity in many ways: there were no monsters of the week, plots could span more than one season, the writing was smart, production values were high (no more Seinfeld-esque shoddy driving backgrounds), and the actors didn't sport that massively popular chiseled jaw look you'll find on the CW—they looked like James Gandolfini. Cultural critic Tony Kelso summarizes the argument this way:

Because HBO is dependent on subscribers rather than advertisers for its main source of revenue, it can take risks without fear of upsetting sponsors...HBO...can also produce plots that develop slowly instead of building toward mini-climaxes before commercial interruptions. Furthermore, as a pay service, HBO does not have to contend with government censorship violations....The network, in a sense, is forced to take risks. If it relies on millions of everyday viewers to relinquish a few extra dollars each month for the opportunity to view programming they cannot get on commercial TV, then HBO must continuously distinguish itself from broadcast and basic cable stations if it hopes to remain viable.

As Kelso suggests, the depiction of sex wasn't just a reason for viewers to enjoy the program—it was also a marker of subscription-TV's singularity. That is to say, viewers of The Sopranos spend so much time checking on Tony Soprano's strip club because sex and nudity could perform a curious mix of functions for HBO, one of which was to titillate, and the other of which was to brand HBO as alternative.

One of the reasons sex became THE defining marker of HBO's distinction relates to premium TV's origin story. Even though HBO has been around since the seventies, it didn't become really popular until the mid-nineties, when censoring bodies in the United States once again became preoccupied with obscenity and children's access to sex. In 1996 Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, the first legislative overhaul of federal media policy since 1934. Although the Act's scope was broad, one of its titles demanded that TV stations establish ratings for their programs. The Act also stipulated that cable channels were required to scramble “adult” material for nonsubscribers, which re-affirmed that places like HBO were both officially allowed to show titties, and that they had to be siphoned off from nonsubscribers.

To supplement the new ratings system, Congress mandated the installation of V-chips (the misleadingly dirty sounding technology meant to block explicit material on TV) in most TV sets manufactured after 1999, the same year The Sopranos launched. It was the cultural zeitgeist. This is how HBO shifted its heavy hitters from sports and kids' shows to sexy comedies and dramas. In 1997, HBO launched the queer prison show Oz, in 1998 it launched Sex and the City, and in 1999, The Sopranos premiered.

Thanks to the many talents on The Sopranos—actors James Gandolfini and Edie Falco and showrunner David Chase—The Sopranos wasn't just hot and violent. It was also a finely orchestrated program whose superlative acting, directing, and writing spawned a whole slew of quality programs. If you want to find evidence of Tony Soprano's influence, just look at how many copy cats he has. Tony was the original quality TV antihero, one now mimicked through similarly death-seeking assholes like Walter White and Don Draper.

Of course HBO isn't the only major player in the quality TV game anymore. AMC and Netflix are two obvious examples of non-cable-subscription services offering similar fare. (Though even those are still a little less sexy than HBO's ongoing titty parade). Without James Gandolfini's wonderful ethics-clusterfuck of a character we wouldn't have the spate of great shows we have today. But TV shows aren't just about narrative: they're also institutions that need to make money. Given the real-world complexities of branding, it's safe to say that without sex and its censorship The Sopranos would never have become the landmark program it's considered today.

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