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Not TV

Object lessons in HBO's sustained brilliance.

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.\n\n\n
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.'
"I think that when your sole goal is to be good," Strauss says, "when everyone who's working there has that frame of reference, then, right away, you're dealing with something special. That may be a little bit different than when your goal is to sell ad time, or drive up ratings-not that ratings aren't important to us, they are important to us-but we live in a world where what we're selling is HBO." In other words, HBO is selling quality; and to sell it, it has to achieve it.Amazingly, HBO gets its quality points even if no one is watching. HBO's single most critically acclaimed series is not The Sopranos, but The Wire, which gets a fraction of the ratings of the mob drama. David Baldwin, HBO's executive VP of program planning, breaks it down: "We don't have to have mass, broad audience hits. Because I have one segment of my audience base that do think [The Wire] is absolutely brilliant, and will not miss it, and that's a large part of their faith in HBO: that we could make something like this-the story of why urban America is failing-that no one else would touch."So HBO's business model is to sell quality, or the perception of quality, directly to the viewer, and that model in turn assures quality. This would explain everything. Except that it doesn't. Specifically, it doesn't explain Showtime, the only other national pay-cable network with a similar mix of programming. For most of HBO's history, Showtime has been its closest competitor, and for all of Showtime's history, HBO has left it in the dust. It has more subscribers than Showtime; at a recent juncture, the score was 28 million to 14 million. This means it makes more money than Showtime, even before taking into account DVD sales and syndication, which are equally lopsided. Its shows get higher ratings than Showtime's: Showtime's highest-rated series, Dexter, averages two million viewers per week, while The Sopranos averages nine million. And it wins more Emmys than Showtime; in 2006, it was nine to one, with HBO beating its nearest competitor, NBC, by three Emmys. (As it happens, I am currently producing two documentaries and developing a series at Showtime. Believe me, none of this stuff is news to them.) If HBO is the Road Runner, Showtime is definitely Wile E. Coyote.The history and evolution of HBO can be seen as a series of accidental discoveries, quantum leaps vaulting it from one level of success to the next. In the late 1980s, HBO took a leap with Tanner '88, directed by Robert Altman and written by Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau, in which a fictional presidential candidate-more than 20 years before Ali G and Borat-interacted with real people during election season. The first great HBO series, Tanner had a BBC-style limited season, running as a complete 11-episode arc rather than year-round and open-ended. It premiered in February, 1988, ignoring the longstanding TV tradition of launching new shows in September. It was driven by strong-willed creators rather than a studio or a committee. Like Curb Your Enthusiasm later, and the ambitious flop K Street, Tanner relied on improvisation as well as clever writing. 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.In this regard, Tanner '88 fell outside the prevailing philosophy of HBO as established by Michael Fuchs, the network's chairman and CEO from 1984 to 1995. When I went to work for HBO in the mid-1990s, Fuchs summed up the network's programming by telling me, "Randy guys are a major part of our demographic." He believed that broadcast networks were aimed primarily at women, whom advertisers considered the main consumers of their products, and so HBO would counter program by aiming for men. Hence boxing, foul-mouthed comedians, and The Twilight Zone with tits-not to mention uncut theatrical movies that often featured additional profanity and nudity. Tanner's comparative lack of testosterone may have prevented HBO from realizing that the show offered a powerful and attainable blueprint for future success.\n\n\n
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.
Still, HBO was so prosperous under Fuchs that in May, 1995, he ascended within the Time Warner hierarchy to a brief and disastrous tenure as head of Warner Music. Shortly after Fuchs' departure, Colin Callender- who was then the head of HBO NYC, the network's boutique movie division-and his lieutenant Keri Putnam oversaw what turned out to be the next leap forward: If These Walls Could Talk, a triptych about women living in the same house in different eras, which earned HBO's single highest rating to date. Its success effectively exploded Fuchs's theory; rather than being a network for men, it turned out that HBO was neglecting half its potential audience. Without Walls, it's unlikely that an estrogen-laden show like Sex and the City would ever have gotten the green light at HBO.I shouldn't have been surprised. Early in my relationship with my then-boss Colin Callender (who is now president of HBO Films), I asked whether there was any sort of master plan for the future of HBO. "Actually," he told me, "we're just making it up as we go along." I thought he was being modest, but once I was working there, I realized he was right. HBO's executives could take real risks in programming, because the network's financial success was predicated on its overall attractiveness to viewers rather than the ratings of any single show. Only HBO could get away with the gnomic cult comedy series Mr. Show, or the longer-running Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry. What kept the results from feeling slapdash was the rigorous application of the old Bridget Potter metric: Is it new and different enough?Hand in hand with HBO's improvisatory, experimental approach was its remarkable absence of middle management. It might be difficult for producers tosell projects to HBO, but once they did, they had direct access to the executives in charge. I watched Colin Callender roll up his sleeves and supervise the edit of each movie under his watch, making adjustments both global and minute until literally hours before airtime. Sheila Nevins and her team did the same for HBO documentaries.When Carolyn Strauss approached Alan Ball with the concept for Six Feet Under, he had just suffered through a disastrous sitcom at ABC. Ball recalls, "At ABC, I would get notes from literally like 10 people, and the notes would be contradicting each other, and the lower-level people were second-guessing what the upper-level people were going to say, and then the upper-level people would give you a note to undo the note that the lower-level people gave you. There was no respect for the creative voice behind a series. In my experience, it's been a polar opposite at HBO. They give very few notes; the notes they give are smart, and . . . you're only getting notes from, like, two people."HBO's final advantage is probably its managerial stability. The average tenure of an executive in HBO senior management is 20 years. Maybe it's the absurdly luxurious package of perks, ranging from lavish 401K plans to full-service private dining rooms; or maybe it's just the feeling that to leave HBO is to trade down. Either way, HBO is the Roach Motel of television: executives walk in, but they don't walk out.HBO assumed its present shape in the late 1990s, when it stepped up its initiative to create original series, largely in response to the sudden popularity of DVDs. HBO's broadcast agreement for feature films originated in the days of videotape, a medium that people tended to rent rather than buy. Theatrical movies would start playing on HBO six months after they came out on video, which was usually six months after their theatrical release. But then consumers began to buy new releases on DVD, half a year before the HBO window. This meant that for much of its audience, HBO was showing old movies.\n\n\n
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.
Fuchs's successor, Jeff Bewkes, saw an opportunity rather than a disaster. Broadcast networks were having their own financial crises, thanks to the dispersal of eyeballs to cable, the internet and video games. With the decrease in audience came a commensurate drop in advertising revenue, and that affected the networks' ability to finance high-quality drama series. HBO was all too happy to step into the breach, with shows like Oz (something for the guys), Sex and the City (something for the gals), and then the behemoth hit The Sopranos (something for just about everybody who could afford cable). More than 25 years after its founding, the golden age of HBO had finally arrived.Every golden age comes with its own anxieties, though, not least among them how long it can be sustained. HBO stands for something now-viewers have standards and expectations they associate with it, and executives can't quite make things up as they go along anymore, especially after creating a model that can be imitated. Showtime is making real noise, with shows like Weeds, Dexter, and The L Word. (Not coincidentally, Showtime's current president of entertainment is Robert Greenblatt, one of the producers of Six Feet Under.) Meanwhile, the FX network is striving to be "the HBO of basic cable," and even the broadcast networks have gotten into the act, with "new and different" shows like Lost and The Office.Nobody's perfect: along the way, HBO has produced its share of awful shows. The George Clooney-Steven Soderbergh series Unscripted, while set against a Hollywood showbiz milieu, lacked the fun and dead-on satire that Entourage later nailed. And Lucky Louie-HBO's attempt to reinvent the three-camera half-hour sitcom by adding occasional nudity and copious profanity-felt like a throwback to the Fuchs era. It was so poorly reviewed that USA Today declared, "HBO's luck has run out." Perversely, though, even that seems like a tribute to the standards the network has set; when CBS cancelled Smith after three episodes, did anyone write that its luck had run out?What's really going on is that, in some ways, HBO has had to start behaving like a regular television network. After years of avoiding the vast and expensive inefficiencies of the Hollywood black hole called "development," HBO has commissioned numerous scripts and potential series pilots. Recently, it brought on J.J. Abrams, the mastermind behind commercial hits like Alias and Lost, to executive produce a drama about cancer patients. On the other hand, its shows in the pipeline also include offbeat fare by Deadwood's David Milch, collaborating with the brilliant novelist Kem Nunn (Tapping the Source) on John from Cincinnati, about a family of surfers; Bert & Dickie, a show being cooked up by the improbable trio of Larry Charles (Curb Your Enthusiasm), the superstar record producer Rick Rubin, and the actor Owen Wilson; Alan Ball's True Blood, set in a world where vampires slake their thirst with synthetic blood and seek equal rights; and an ensemble drama about a sex therapist and her clients called Tell Me You Love Me, which promises to marry the complexity and depth of HBO's prime-time series with the explicit sexuality of late-night shows like HBO Real Sex and Cathouse.A couple of years ago, I found myself back at HBO, trying to persuade Sheila Nevins to finance a documentary called Left of the Dial, about the first year of the left-wing radio network Air America. Sheila had already said no to the film after seeing a five-minute trailer and a twenty-minute reel of footage. Again, it seemed we had something that was new and different, but not new and different enough for HBO. It was a real dilemma, because we were out of money.That day, Sheila began telling us about a recent visit to her dentist. "They were playing Air America in the waiting room, and all these conservative callers were giving hell to the host. And she was giving it right back to them! And I got it. For the first time I got it. I thought, if we can get that kind of rambunctious energy in this film, it could be very entertaining." Just like that, Left of the Dial made it through the gauntlet. It was new. It was different. It was HBO.Nevins has been head of documentaries for HBO for all of 27 years, but she still approaches every day with brio. "You know how you touch something and it has electricity?" she tells me. "Well, that's sort of what it's like to be at HBO. It's like your skirt gets caught to your slip all the time."

HBO Original Programming: A Short History

Inside the NFL(1977–present)It's the longest running show in cable history.Awards: 1 EmmyThe Terry Fox Story (1983)True Story Alert: Amputee Terry Fox ran across Canada on one leg!Fraggle Rock (1983–1987)An underground civilization of Muppets … enough said.The Hitchhiker (1983–1991)Once upon a time, began the story-telling hitchhiker, Kirstie Alley was hot.1st & Ten (1984–1991)This silly football sitcom ran for a surprising seven seasons-six of them co-starring O.J. Simpson.The Laundromat (1985)A chance encounter found Carol Burnett and Amy Madigan sharing secrets over fabric softener. Robert Altman directs.Tanner '88 (1988)Director Robert Altman considered this his most creative project.Awards: 1 EmmyReal Sex (1990–present)Episodes of this long-running documentary series investigatedsex toys, trends, machines, and a cunnilingus seminar.Mr. Show (1995–1998)Stream-of-consciousness comedy that was funnier than it was weird.Awards: 4 Emmy nominationsIf These Walls Could Talk (1996)First misty-eyed installment: three generations of women cope with abortion issues.Miss Evers' Boys (1997)The 1932 Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment: U.S. government treated black men like lab rats.Awards: 1 Golden Globe, 4 EmmysOZ (1997–2003)The first hour-long HBO series fused literary references with prison sentences for six staggering seasons.From the Earth to the Moon (1998)The producers and star of Apollo 13 stargazed and saw a hit.Awards: 1 Golden Globe, 3 Emmys
Sex and the City (1998-2004)The phrase, "He's just not that into you," ranks #13 on TV Guide's Top 20 All Time Catchphrase list.Awards: 8 Golden Globes, 7 Emmys
The Sopranos (1999–present)Creator David Chase on his mob hit: "Let's just say some people get hurt."Awards: 5 Golden Globes, 18 Emmys
If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000)This time around, three generations of lesbians search for love and acceptance.Awards: 1 Golden Globe
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–present)Hilarious, awkward comedy with the scariest tagline ever: "Deep inside youknow you're him."Awards: 1 Golden Globe, 1 EmmyBand of Brothers (2001)The main actors in this WWII miniseries were cast due to their likenesses to the soldiers they portrayed.Awards: 1 Golden Globe, 6 EmmysWit (2001)Metaphysical wit is no match for ovarian cancer. Human compassion trumps them both.Awards: 3 Emmys
Six Feet Under (2001–2005)The funeral director Fishers confronted death, sex, and faith unlike any TV family before them.Awards: 3 Golden Globes, 9 EmmysCathouse (2002–present)Crass reality series set in a legal Nevada brothel is a long, long way from Belle De Jour.Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry (2002–present)Hosted by Mos Def, it occasionally features big talent (Amiri Baraka,Saul Williams).Awards: 1 Peabody
The Wire (2002–present)A final fifth season will explore therole of the media in this gritty West Baltimore cross-section.Angels in America (2003)Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson wrenched many a heart in this AIDS-focused miniseries.Awards: 5 Golden Globes, 11 EmmysElephant (2003)Most of the students were non-actors in Gus Vant Sant's disarming take on Columbine.Awards: Won Palme d'Or at CannesK Street (2003)The earlier and more notable of Soderbergh's two semi-improvised flops.Deadwood (2004–2006)Shakespeare in the 1870s Dakota Territory. Two full-length films are on the way.Awards: 1 Golden Globe, 7 EmmysEntourage (2004–present)"A lifestyle is a ter-rible thing to waste" reads the tagline to this Hollywood fantasy based on producer Mark Wahlberg's life.Awards: 2 Golden Globes, 1 EmmyUnscripted (2005)Soderbergh's second flop was a near miss, maybe too sober for its own good.Rome (2005–present)It's Dynasty in togas; trashy fun, but not the classic it should have been.Awards: 4 EmmysBaghdad ER (2006)The U.S. Army sent a warning to soldiers saying this medical documentary might trigger post-traumatic stress syndrome.Awards: 4 Emmys
When The Levees Broke (2006)Forget Inside Man-Spike Lee'ssearing elegy for Katrina might just be his best film.

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