HBO’s knack for quality TV has long made it a success. How will it take on its next cutting-edge competition?
If TV audiences are harder to please nowadays, subscription television network HBO might be to blame. Beginning around the late 1990s, the Home Box Office started delivering high-quality, new, smart drama to its viewers in the form of original television series. It started off with prison drama Oz in 1997, but it wasn’t until The Sopranos took to the airwaves in 1999 that HBO made history and changed the TV landscape forever — for the better, upping the industry’s creative game. HBO led the way for gradual, intelligent storytelling, especially with morally ambiguous characters and plots that pushed the envelope. The Sopranos symbolized that style; the rich gangster drama was shot all over New Jersey. Today, another gangster drama shoots on a detailed Brooklyn set: Boardwalk Empire.
Quality doesn’t come cheap: Boardwalk Empire’s pilot episode cost nearly $2M. That’s what it takes to wow HBO’s audience these days; they’ve come to expect quality. It seems to have lost its way in the middle of the 2000s, when period dramas Rome and Deadwood didn’t get picked up — even despite going on to gain followers long after cancellation. Now, HBO’s heavy-hitters are the aforementioned Boardwalk Empire and two book adaptations, quirky Southern vampire drama True Blood and hard-edged fantasy Game of Thrones. This year, HBO’s nominations for the Emmy Awards totaled 104 — far ahead of any other network, and they’re no stranger to award shows.
They profit hugely — a $4 billion turnover in 2010 — but they’re not without challenges. Older networks stepping up their programming and newer networks also producing good quality TV are competition, and how HBO turns these challenges into something beneficial will continue to shape the TV landscape. HBO was the first cable channel to especially produce films — and deliver them through satellite, another first. They were also first to use multiplexing; there are now seven HBO channels in America; they own Cinemax, which has 12M American subscribers and eight channels itself; HBO airs live pay-per-view boxing, networks in 60 countries; they’re innovative.
How did they come to be so successful in the realm of original series? Although The Sopranos certainly took the TV world by storm, HBO didn’t get their reputation overnight. Many will remember the creepy cult hit show Tales from the Crypt in the late 80s. The Larry Sanders Show, about a bad-tempered talk show host, made am impact. Oz was its first hour-long drama. It whet the palate for more content.
Then, The Sopranos; the early 2000s also featured the extraordinarily popular and iconic Sex and the City, a comedy romance sitcom about a columnist and her bachelorette friends braving New York’s dating scene. The Wire became critically acclaimed for its tough portrayal of drug dealers and law enforcement. HBO ambitiously ran the compelling wartime miniseries Band of Brothers in 2001. All of these decisions were influential to the future: owning all of their content, all wins and failures falling right on the company, but nor does it have to share its winnings. HBO became very much in control of itself and how its content was to be distributed.
CUTTING-EDGE PROGRAMMES WITHOUT CUTTING CORNERS
HBO is a premium network in America. That means customers pay $15 on top of their normal basic cable channels. Because HBO’s viewers are paying them, they don’t need advertising. The result is no regular commercials and a channel that can freely offer sex, violence, and language most advertisers wouldn’t sponsor. It’s also more personal; they don’t have to stretch themselves thin trying to lure in big audiences. They can please the loyal customers they have.
But HBO isn’t the only one enjoying the benefits of ad-free programming. The companies producing HBO-worthy series — their competitors — are also exploring the freedom. Showtime’s critically acclaimed shows include the popular Weeds, Nurse Jackie and Dexter (with plenty of original films under its belt, too). Starz — helmed by HBO’s former head — is aiming for the same. It now co-produces shows with BBC Worldwide, which is how Torchwood: Miracle Day came to happen. Showtime and Starz are frequently less expensive than HBO. They work differently: when HBO adds a subscriber, the new income is usually split evenly with the cable/satellite broadcaster, while the other premium networks let the distributor keep the money because they’ve paid a single licence fee.
It’s not just premium cable networks competing. Basic cable networks are pushing their limits and expanding their programming, too. Take AMC: not without its inner troubles as of late, but it’s quite a success story. Originally known (or unknown) for old movies, it blasted into recognition when a little show turned down by HBO turned into a phenomenon. That would be Mad Men, of course. It went to offer Breaking Bad, a shocking drama about a high school chemistry teacher turned meth cook, and The Walking Dead, a zombie series from Frank Darabont. FX, TNT, SyFy, and USA have all used original programming, sometimes with notable results too.
One network’s achievements aren’t necessarily blows to another, though. Take HBO: it paved the way for many of TV’s most compelling dramas on other networks. The industry has benefited along with the audience. Good cable TV draws in talent from other areas. More and more “movie actors” are showing up on the small screen. HBO banks mostly on pulling in stellar writers.
It’s about a level of quality in high-end television; show-runners have more creative freedom than in broadcast TV and cinema. Even by premium TV standards, HBO stands out in the creative freedom arena. They’re known by show-runners as welcoming of new ideas. Once it commits to a show, HBO isn’t as heavy with the cancellation axe as others. Shows such as Treme, an easy-on-the-ear, realistic take on post-Katrina New Orleans, filmed on location, is well-done and endearing, but probably wouldn’t have made it into its second season on most networks.
HBO has changes ahead of it, certainly. Online TV and film mogul Netflix was something of an obstacle. But if the internet is the place to go, HBO will be there: they’ve introduced HBO Go, an online service that lets subscribers watch many of its original content on-demand. Promotion is intense. The most recent season of True Blood started airing online before cable. Free online access might hinder profit a little, but HBO isn’t worried. The audience that has access to broadband but not multichannels is the largest. The internet, like TV, is always changing. However, being on the cutting edge is what HBO does best.