TOPICS > Nation

HBO: Creative Force

September 16, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ACTOR: So how’s your love life?

TERENCE SMITH: With this month’s long-awaited return of “The Sopranos” on HBO.

ACTOR: I don’t know, it kind of feels like it is my business, considering I had to haul your last boyfriend out of your kitchen in a hefty bag.

TERENCE SMITH: …And the cable network’s continued domination of the primetime Emmys…

SPOKESPERSON: Peter Krause for “Six Feet Under.”

TERENCE SMITH: …The industry buzz about HBO’S influence on all of television is only getting stronger.

ACTRESS: Saturday night I say we spinsters take back Manhattan.

TERENCE SMITH: HBO has some conspicuous advantages over the broadcast networks.

It does not have to deal with constraints imposed by advertisers or broadcast sensors, and it refuses to be bound by the networks’ rigid programming schedules.

TERENCE SMITH: Does the economic model of the networks, the broadcast networks, does it still work?

CHRIS ALBRECHT: Well, it’s certainly fraying around the edges.

TERENCE SMITH: After seven years as head of original programming, HBO Veteran Chris Albrecht was recently named chairman and CEO. He says the subscriber-based service is not in competition with the networks. It answers to viewers, he says, not advertisers.

CHRIS ALBRECHT: The product that we sell is HBO — the network. The product that the other people are selling are the ones that are shown in the commercials during the programs.

TERENCE SMITH: Thanks largely to its original programming, HBO has been adding about a million subscribers a year. With earnings of more than $700 million in 2001, HBO has been a bright spot for its parent company, AOL Time Warner.

MARTIN KAPLAN: I think broadcast television is very much looking over its shoulder.

TERENCE SMITH: Martin Kaplan, who heads the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, says the cumbersome way networks develop programming makes it almost impossible to produce much quality.

MARTIN KAPLAN: You could not design a nuttier system than the present system of broadcast television product development, in which hundreds of ideas are pitched and hundreds are bought and developed and turned into scripts, and scores of pilots are shot, and then in the end a handful on a very rigid calendar in a crazy week of counter- programming, that handful is chosen.

SPOKESPERSON: Camera mark.

TERENCE SMITH: HBO can make a series with any number of shows, debut it at any time, and air a given episode several times a week. The rigidity of network schedules by comparison says Albrecht is the network’s choice.

CHRIS ALBRECHT: It’s a deal with the devil that they’ve existed in for a very long time. It’s not one that they are obligated to, but it’s a paradigm that they’ve chosen for themselves. We have not chosen to live in that paradigm.

TERENCE SMITH: HBO will spend $400 million on original programming this year– real money, but less than a quarter of what some broadcast networks budget.

TERENCE SMITH: The point has also been made that because you don’t have to fill a whole prime-time schedule that you can spend more money on programming per episode. Is that so?

CHRIS ALBRECHT: You know, they spent $13 million an episode on “ER” when it was successful. So these guys are owned by GE, News Corp, Disney. There’s no… you know, there’s nobody hurting there.

TERENCE SMITH: HBO’s flexibility and its reputation for sticking with a project once committed has made it a favorite within the creative community.

SPOKESMAN: All right, here we go. Lock it up nice and quiet for rehearsal.

TERENCE SMITH: Actor Dominic West:

DOMINIC WEST: It’s the most interesting thing going on in TV, I think, and so you sort of… that gives it a buzz and a certain responsibility, but also, you know, you feel like you’re part of something important and something… something that’s hitting the nerve.

TERENCE SMITH: An HBO show does not need the broad-based appeal of a commercially sponsored network program to succeed. The name of the game in premium cable is subscribers, not sponsors, so HBO feels free to explore difficult or unusual subjects…

ACTOR: God, I can’t wait until our next funeral.

TERENCE SMITH: …And gradually build an audience. David Simon has written for both network television and HBO

DAVID SIMON: The network culture, you know, if you get bad numbers for three, four weeks, you’re off the air. And a year’s worth of development is right out the window.

TERENCE SMITH: His most recent venture, HBO’s gritty series “The Wire,” said as much about bureaucracy as it did about the drug world.

ACTOR: I’m not a narco. I don’t dirty people because I don’t give a — (bleeped) — about a possession charge. I’m a murder police. I’m here about the bodies.

TERENCE SMITH: In a nation rocked by scandals in everything from Enron to the FBI to the Catholic Church, he says the public can relate to a complicated, multi-level story.

DAVID SIMON: You can make sure they you get a 35 share, but, you know, at the end of the day, have they said… have they made any kind of arguments about who we are, about what’s right, about what’s wrong, about what matters to us? For that, you really have to… you have to let writers tell the stories they want to tell, and market share be damned.

TERENCE SMITH: While executives may not go that far, Simon maintains that series at HBO can be what he calls novels for television. He can build characters slowly, he does not need cliffhangers to bring viewers back after a commercial, and he’s free of network and advertiser mandates to be upbeat.

DAVID SIMON: Can you imagine somebody picking up “All Quiet on the Western Front” and going, “Eh, you know, they’re losing the war God’s sake.”

TERENCE SMITH: Most HBO shows, he says, are telling a larger story.

ACTRESS: The shelf in the garage is still loose.

DAVID SIMON: I mean, “The Sopranos” is not about a mob family in Jersey. It is if you want to watch it for just that, you know, you can enjoy it. But it’s also about families. It’s about the whole concept of family, the modern family.

ACTOR: She’s worried. And what’s going to happen to them if I’m dead? And buy bonds.

DAVID SIMON: It resonates culturally because we all see ourselves in our own families, in our own relationships through this extreme prism of a mob family.

ACTOR: On the other hand, she’s right. Not that I’d ever tell her that.

SPOKESMAN: After he curses…

TERENCE SMITH: HBO, without the need to meet broadcast standards, is often accused of lowering the bar on sex, profanity, and violence. The debate is whether the coarseness is gratuitous or simply a reflection of real life. We asked Simon whether the 25 expletives in the first eight minutes of one episode of “The Wire” were really necessary.

DAVID SIMON; I covered cops for 13 years in Baltimore for The Baltimore Sun. This is exactly how the cops I know and knew and covered talk — no less, no more. It’s not exaggerated. It’s not hyperbole. It’s how they are. It’s also how the street sounds.

TERENCE SMITH: Joanne Ostrow, television and radio critic for The Denver Post, says subscribers are subscribing to the strength of the writing, not the lax standards.

JOANNE OSTROW: It’s not all those things that the broadcast networks can’t do. It really… it’s about the writing.

ACTRESS: Everyone knows you only get two great loves in your life.

ACTRESS: Everyone who? Where did you get that?

ACTRESS: I read it in a magazine.

ACTRESS: What magazine — “Convenient Theories For You” monthly?

JOANNE OSTROW: They’re not… they’re not talking down to the viewers.

TERENCE SMITH: And as its young, upscale audience grows, HBO is increasingly having a creative impact on network programming.

JOANNE OSTROW: We’re seeing the effect of HBO With more shows on the networks that are emulating a kind of sophisticated, harder edge show. We’ve got “Boom Town” coming up this fall.

SPOKESMAN: Got it in the hand– bang, bang, bang– one down here, one down on this end.

JOANNE OSTROW: At midseason, we’ll see “Kingpin,” which is NBC’s answer to “The Sopranos,” about a Mafia family, a crime boss.

TERENCE SMITH: Ostrow says networks have also experimented with having fewer commercial interruptions — HBO has none — and are paying more attention to story lines.

JOANNE OSTROW: I think definitely they’re aiming higher. It’s more respect for the audience, richer character development, less formula writing, and deeper, richer story lines, more complicated.

TERENCE SMITH: And in what may be the biggest bow to HBO, ABC recently struck a new production deal in which HBO will produce shows for ABC. Will this bring more creative programming to the network?

JOANNE OSTROW: I think that may be wishful thinking. I don’t think we’re going to see a “Sopranos” kind of breakaway, really form-changing show pop up on ABC just because of this production deal.

I think this is more about ABC needs hits, HBO needs more outlets.

TERENCE SMITH: HBO plans further ventures into serious television, home video and feature films. It’s also experimenting in markets across the country with a new technology that is potentially the most important breakthrough in television: Video on demand.

CHRIS ALBRECHT: It certainly is the big hope of the future.

TERENCE SMITH: Chris Albrecht says video on demand, if it succeeds, could leave distinctive programming with a decisive advantage in the intensely competitive world that is network television.

CHRIS ALBRECHT: It enhances or augments the reasons that there need to be things that are distinctive, because if you’re going to put something in a package, if you’re going to expect somebody to look at a slate and go, “I want to see that,” then it’s got to be something that really jumps out.

TERENCE SMITH: And that, of course, has been the HBO philosophy from the beginning.

SPOKESMAN: Cut it please.