In a season when so many proud, smug, invincible winners have suddenly become losers—NBC, the Bush administration—maybe it was inevitable that the tide would turn against HBO. It finished 2004 with 32 Emmys (more than all the broadcast networks combined) and profits of more than $1 billion (more than any other network). And so last month, as night follows day, The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press published their versions of a new conventional wisdom concerning HBO: With a 30 percent margin and no decline in subscriptions, it still may be a killer business, but it’s suddenly losing its creative magic, its quality-TV hegemony, its mojo. During the last three years, its average prime-time audiences have shrunk 29 percent.
The people who run HBO profess not to care. You see, they say, HBO doesn’t sell advertising, so its series’ ratings are more a matter of academic interest than a daily source of existential dread. When HBO’s chairman, Chris Albrecht, returned my call from his car in Los Angeles, I asked about the bummer news stories. “I haven’t heard the bummer news,” he said. I think he was joking. And by the way, says Dave Baldwin, the executive in charge of audience numbers, “we’re not just series. There are still a lot of people who subscribe for movies, or boxing.”
Yes, and movies were the only reason most people subscribed in the days before Netflix and movies-on-demand, before HBO became HBO—creating the best drama (The Sopranos), the best Western (Deadwood), the smartest sitcoms (Larry Sanders, Curb Your Enthusiasm), and the funniest reality show (Ali G) in television history. Not to mention Oz and Sex and the City and The Wire and Entourage. It has been with its series that HBO has habituated us to expect excitement and even greatness, raising the bar for itself splendidly, dangerously high.
HBO does not live or die by ratings, but, as Albrecht admits, they do “need buzz.” All buzz has a half-life. And to recharge it requires infusions of meaningful novelty: How have you shifted the paradigm lately?
Take Deadwood. Ian McShane’s saloonkeeper Al Swearengen is every bit as savage, funny, repulsive, and delightful as Tony Soprano. And whether people in 1876 actually cursed this way, the dialogue—orotund period speeches larded with fucks and cocksuckers—is thrillingly unlike anything one has heard before, Mark Twain meets Edith Wharton meets David Mamet. Deadwood is great, yet it has not yet achieved a critical mass of buzz, maybe because the Western really is dead as a mass entertainment, or because the show is too much in the mold of The Sopranos. Six Feet Under had a buzzy launch and came close to must-see status, but the final-season plunge of pretty much every character into anger, depression, hopelessness, or insanity has alienated even cultists (ratings are down almost 18 percent from last year). The Wire is a remarkably excellent drama about drugs and corruption in Baltimore, but in the three years since it premiered, no one has ever mentioned it to me. Buzz can’t be quantified, but the HBO metric that most closely tracks it, perhaps, is the percentage of a show’s audience eager enough to watch each episode the first time it airs. For The Sopranos, it’s 60 percent; for Entourage and Deadwood, it’s closer to 40 percent.
What’s more, the rest of television has, of course, been trying to HBO-ify itself, especially FX and Fox but even ABC. “On Sundays a lot of HBO subscribers are watching Desperate Housewives,” says Albrecht—the irony of which he appreciates, peevishly. “The biggest noise in broadcast TV is from the successor to Sex and the City.” (And over on Showtime, Kirstie Alley’s Fat Actress is a funnier version of Lisa Kudrow’s sad Comeback, which even people at HBO say sucks.)
In other words, HBO must now compete against both its own groundbreaking history and TV influenced and inspired by HBO.
But instead of Schadenfreude, the German emotion we should feel on HBO’s behalf is Groszügigkeit, a hopeful largeness of spirit. It’s important that HBO continue to succeed, because its business model—making huge profits based on a real devotion to excellence (plus the occasional sex show or boxing match)—is good for the culture.
The fact that HBO doesn’t sell ads, for instance, gives its shows a profound creative advantage. Writers are not required to warp each script into several “acts” that must end on some kind of cliff-hanger to keep viewers from turning the channel at the commercial breaks.
“Other networks,” says Albrecht, “aim to make things popular and then maybe work on making them good. We say, ‘We gotta be good, and wouldn’t it be nice if it were popular.’ ” That’s a PR line, but it’s also true. “We have had every opportunity to cancel The Wire,” an HBO executive says. “We truly believe as soon as we start to do that, we stop being what we are.”