Subscription based or pay television has resulted in a change in what type of content is broadcast by these networks. This model has led to networks creating much more specialized types of shows to influence viewers to subscribe. Subscription networks are most concerned with providing content that will make people want to subscribe as well as renew subscriptions rather than who is watching and when this viewing is taking place.

Due to the unedited nature of premium services, it is typical for large amounts of profanity, nudity/sexual situations, violence and other adult content to be shown since they are not subject to approval by sponsors. To notify viewers of program content, most premium channels air advisory bumpers immediately before each program, mentioning the program rating (typically not applying to live sporting events) and program content information. Since the 1990s, premium channels in the United States use content descriptors describing potentially objectionable content included in the program, such as mild violence (identified as “MV”) or strong sexual content (identified as “SSC”); additional features included in the television program such as closed captioning and surround sound functions, and alternate-language audio tracks via secondary audio program feeds may also be mentioned.

Movies comprise much of the program content seen on pay television services with a general entertainment format; films that are broadcast on most premium channels in their original theatrically-released (and in some cases, unrated home video or DVD) versions; this is in comparison to films aired on terrestrial television or basic cable, which may be subject to edits for time and/or content, depending on what content a jurisdiction allows to be shown over-the-air or on basic cable. Many pay television services obtain rights to films through exclusive agreements with film distributors; films acquired during original term of license agreements with a distributor may also be broadcast long after the conclusion of a distribution agreement, via “sub-run” rights.

Many general interest premium channels also produce original television series, which feature content that in some jurisdictions may be edgier than such programs seen on broadcast networks; many of these series (such as HBO’s The Sopranos and Sex and the City and Showtime’s Dexter) have gone on to achieve viewer, critical and accolade success, though they are subject to a lower audience ratings threshold than programs on broadcast television due to the fact that these channels are subscription-based. Some premium channels also broadcast television specials, which most commonly consist of concert events, documentary films and stand-up comedy acts.

Sports programming is also featured on some premium services, in particular HBO and Showtime in the United States are both notable for their carriage of boxing events, while Showtime and Epix also carry mixed martial arts events; specialty pay sports channels such as Setanta Sports and Fox Soccer Plus exist and are typically sold at a higher expense than traditional premium services. Some pay services also offer pornographic films; a few mainstream services (such as Cinemax in the U.S. and The Movie Network’s MExcess in Canada) carry a limited amount of softcore content during late night time periods. Specialized channels dedicated to pornographic films also exist that carry either softcore adult programs (e.g. Playboy TV) or slightly more hardcore content (e.g., The Erotic Network, Hustler TV), these channels are often sold on a night-by-night basis similar to the pay-per-view model, even though they commonly operate as 24-hour channels.

Premium television services are commonly devoid of traditional commercial advertising, therefore programs on most pay television channels are uninterrupted by television commercials with breaks inserted between programs that typically feature promotions for upcoming programs and special behind-the-scenes features (this is the main reason why most subscription television channels are able to run programs without any editing, as they are not subject to pressure from advertisers to tone down content); some sports-based pay services, however, may feature some commercial advertising, particularly if they simulcast sporting events that are broadcast by advertiser-supported television networks.

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