Dexter, the Showtime show about a serial killer, is going to air on CBS tonight. Dexter is an R-rated, dark show, with adult themes and content. That’s why it’s on cable. This is the first time that a made-for-premium-cable drama has been repurposed to air on network television. As part of a contingency plan from the writer’s strike, CBS will air all 12 episodes of the series’ first season consecutively.
Of course, Dexter has to be edited. Time constraints demand it (commercials make broadcast television free, remember), and there are those pesky regulations. Although TV is far from stringent (just notice how many times you hear “bitch”, then think of your grandparents), broadcast cable cannot have nudity, anything termed “indecent”, and basically anything on HBO, Showtime or FX falls into that category.
While I am all for watching unedited, uncensored episodes of cable products, from The Sopranos to Sex and the City, this is a good move because it will expose the show to a wider audience. When Sex and the City was first syndicated to TBS back in 2004 and then later to the WB, I was horrified. How could that happen? How in the world could those episodes stay intact? For someone who knows the original versions well, watching a network edit is just plain wrong. It’s jarring. You know where the swear words belong, you have a feeling that something’s missing. But while newbies might chuckle at an obvious switcheroo from “asshole” to “jerk”, for the most part they don’t notice anything because they have nothing to compare it to.While this maneuver isn’t going to win Showtime many new subscriptions, it will probably land Dexter a few new fans. Although it may not seem that A&E's versions of The Sopranos did much good for that series, Sex and the City's enduring popularity with both a whole new set of fans exposed by syndication and old fans reinvigorated by daily or weekly viewings has made the show even more of a cultural touchstone than it already was. Just look at the box office draw for the movie this summer to prove it.
I’ve never seen Dexter before, because I don’t have Showtime and have never had access to it. I want to watch Weeds and The Tudors too, but until they are available free online or I can easily get them on DVD I can’t watch them. For all the talk about how Netflix and the internet have revolutionized the television/movie viewing market, it doesn’t reach a fraction of the audience that a broadcast premiere has. Showtime only reaches 16.3% of television households. Believe it or not, there are people out there who do not have cable, even basic cable. CBS for many people is the first channel on the dial, and many people flip through to see if anything catches their eye. There are people out there who have never heard of Dexter because they do not have Showtime, and are certainly not going to get it.
In this age of media integration and synergy, it seems like only a good idea to share resources and to “borrow” shows to fill up time. After all, when Law and Order: Criminal Intent was cancelled by NBC because it was the lowest-rated L&O and couldn’t possibly compete with its sisters, USA picked it up. CI was saved, and it fit right in.The broadcast networks have history, power, and money on their side, and they can use this to push shows that a Bravo or a USA cannot. There’s still a lingering legitimacy that a broadcast show has over a cable program, even though pay cable like Showtime and HBO have become prestige programming. Broadcast television by its very nature is supposed to be mainstream and somewhat populist; it has to serve a wide audience. This idea might be losing credence in an age of narrowcasting, niche, and long-tail markets, but these small populations only go so far. Most people want ideas and creations to reach the widest audience possible, no matter how offbeat and off-putting the subject matter is. By putting Dexter on CBS, CBS is legitimizing the show in a way its being on Showtime doesn’t do; while it will probably lose prestige, it will gain new viewers. The creators, at least not now, do not have to worry about marketing to that audience and making a broadcast show; that is up to marketing people at CBS. CBS is saying that the country is “ready” for a show like Dexter, and it’s hard to argue with them, considering that edgy and dark dramas are popular all over the dial, and they feel that as a crime drama it fits in well with their slate of CSIs.