I can't be objective about HBO. Of course, a lot of people could say the same thing. Over the last decade, the innovative cable channel has convinced them that it's special, not subject to the laws and compromises of ordinary television networks-something worth paying extra for.It's a feeling sufficiently widespread to make HBO's clever slogan-"It's not TV. It's HBO"-seem less like marketing and more like simple statement of fact.Unlike HBO, most American television has always operated on an economic model in which programming is free, and networks make money by selling commercial time to advertisers. Consequently, the Scylla and Charybdis of TV are predigested blandness (to avoid driving away advertisers) and lowest-common-denominator pandering (to attract eyeballs, therefore allowing networks to charge advertisers higher rates for shows with higher ratings). Only the best shows avoid these two traps. A few years ago, for a book I was writing, I sat down in front of 12 television sets and watched hundreds of hours of American television in a single week-I still haven't recovered. So when I talk about blandness and pandering on TV, I know what I'm talking about.But that's not why I can't be objective. Although I've watched and enjoyed much of HBO's work, I have different reasons. I worked at HBO's movie division for two years in the 1990s, and witnessed the network's rise up close, as it occurred. More recently, I was an executive producer on an Emmy-nominated HBO documentary. And beyond it all, I've had a fascination with HBO that predates my employment there, and that has continued in the years since. That fascination boils down to one question: How the hell do they do it?My initial exposure to the inner workings of what people used to call Home Box Office was a meeting in 1985 with Bridget Potter, then the head of original programming. At the time, HBO's original programming mostly consisted of boxing matches; concerts; standup comedy; a sports show called Inside the NFL (which is still on the air); movies like The Terry Fox Story, about a one-legged cancer victim who ran across Canada; a cheap-looking sitcom called 1st & Ten, about a pro football team, starring Delta Burke and O.J. Simpson; and an anthology series called The Hitchhiker, which even HBO executives described as "The Twilight Zone with tits." But even then, cool and unclassifiable stuff was popping up, pointing the way to some unanticipated and unplanned future: Jim Henson's puppet series Fraggle Rock, or experiments like Robert Altman's The Laundromat. Meanwhile, long before Michael Moore and Survivor made reality sexy, Sheila Nevins, HBO's head of documentaries, had already established the network as a home for provocative true-life tales.Bridget Potter was a pistol, a former Yippie who had channeled her anti-establishment mischief-making into the creation of unconventional television. My boss and I were attempting to pitch her a series of short bio-pics about R&B legends like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. Potter got it immediately, and spent time exploring the idea, its possible permutations and overall potential, before telling us bluntly that while it might be a good project, it wasn't a good HBO project. It's the quintessential HBO experience for visiting producers, a kind of Socratic dialogue:What's a good HBO project? Something new and different.Isn't our project new and different? Not enough for HBO.So what's new and different enough for HBO? We know it when we see it.The difference between HBO and conventional television starts with a business model that doesn't rely on advertising. You pay a monthly fee to your cable system if you want HBO; and if you don't want HBO, you don't pay. Every month, some people pick up the service, and some people drop it. Cable executives call this "churn." The goal is to have positive churn rather than negative churn-to give people a network of shows worth paying for.It's a tricky dynamic-just ask Carolyn Strauss. The 43-year-old president of HBO Entertainment started at the network as an assistant, rising to head of series before assuming her present position. It was Strauss and her boss Chris Albrecht, now the chairman and CEO of the network, who developed and oversaw the trio of original series that lifted HBO to another level: The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under. The last was Strauss's own concept, which she pitched to the Oscar-winning American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball; it's arguably the most notable network-generated series idea since NBC's Brandon Tartikoff scribbled "MTV cops" on a napkin giving birth to Miami Vice.
|At the time, HBO's original programming mostly consisted of boxing matches; concerts; standup comedy; a sports show called Inside the NFL ; movies like The Terry Fox Story, about a one-legged cancer victim who ran across Canada; a cheap-looking sitcom called 1st & Ten, about a pro football team, starring Delta Burke and O.J. Simpson; and an anthology series called The Hitchhiker, which even HBO executives described as ‘The Twilight Zone with tits.'|
|And for HBO, Tanner's most striking innovation was perhaps that its difference from network television could be measured in its intelligence and artistic ambition, rather than in its number of exposed nipples per hour.|
|It's arguably the most notable network-generated series idea since NBC's Brandon Tartikoff scribbled "MTV cops" on a napkin and gave birth to Miami Vice.|