I Want My HBO

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.”

My friend Lawrence O’Donnell writes for The West Wing, created the show Mister Sterling for NBC, and has written for CBS. Of network and studio executives generally, he explains, “They’ll say things that couldn’t have made sense even to them, to fill the air.” But with HBO, “you never leave a discussion shaking your head.” This year he wrote a pilot script for a show set at a cable-news channel, and even HBO’s reason for passing—its glut of inside-showbiz series—seemed perfectly reasonable to him. “I would only want to create a show for HBO. That’s what everyone wants unless they have their eye on billion-dollar syndication money. If you’re someone who thinks you can survive on $2 million a year,” he says, only half-jokingly, “HBO is the place.”

But just as HBO has become a victim of its own success in terms of competition and buzz, it is also a victim of its singularly art- and artist-friendly M.O. Its programming strategy of lavish minimalism—airing only a few series at a time, launching only a few new ones a year, producing half the usual number of episodes per season—vastly increases the odds of creating great shows. (It also helps that HBO allows ten to twelve days to shoot an episode of Deadwood or The Sopranos, instead of the network-standard eight.) Back in 2001, though, new episodes of at least one of its most-chattered-about series were almost always airing. The big buzz wave never had a chance to crest and crash. Then gaps started appearing in the schedule. Last spring, Sex and the City ended, and Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Sopranos began hiatuses of fifteen months and almost two years, respectively.

No normal network would give any producer or star such a long leash. When I asked Albrecht about the absences, it was the one time during our conversation that he groped for an answer. “Different guys want different things,” he said. “I don’t know what to do to change that dynamic, [and] I think it’s a benefit to us more in the long run … David [Chase, the creator of The Sopranos] said, ‘I need to take some time and reinvigorate.’ … Believe me, we tried to influence Larry [David to make new shows sooner], but the more you try to influence Larry, the less you influence Larry.”

Happily, redemption is probably just around the corner. The chattering class is actually starting to chatter about Entourage. At the end of the summer, HBO will begin airing Rome, a $100 million, twelve-hour series set in 52 B.C.; judging from the first episode, it is the finest sword-and-sandals epic ever made. (ABC’s preemptive ripoff was the deeply cheesy six-hour series Empire, set in 44 B.C.) In the fall comes Ricky Gervais’s blithely dark comedy Extras, in which he plays a shameless movie extra, as well as the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Big Love, which premieres early next year, will be the Six Feet Under of HBO’s next epoch, the show with which the channel’s yuppie core audience can most easily identify. Instead of a surprisingly normal family of undertakers, it’s a surprisingly normal family of schismatic Mormon polygamists—Bill Paxton as a home-improvement superstore entrepreneur living with three wives (including Jeanne Tripplehorn and Chloë Sevigny) and seven children in Utah. The pilot made me want to see more. And The Sopranos’ sixth season will finally get under way in March.

Every few years, the triumphalist right rattles its swords about defunding public television, and they’ve been at it again. PBS was created with the grandest intentions in the sixties: Wouldn’t it be swell to have a smart, enlightened national channel that was sheltered from the ratings-crazed, lowest-common-denominator bazaar of the advertising-dependent networks? But 36 years later, we understand that this country is simply incapable of sustaining a government-funded world-class public-television service. Which is a disheartening and very modern-American failure, but there it is; get over it. There are more important battles with the right to fight.

Besides, the market, in its imperfect, helter-skelter way, has been addressing the problem. When PBS started, there were no cable channels—no Nickelodeon, Animal Planet, or Discovery; no C-span, BBC America, IFC, or Sundance.

And no HBO. Forget all the weird, sexy HBO series that PBS even in its heyday would never dream of making. But in a more perfect world, wouldn’t PBS have made Band of Brothers, Rome, and HBO’s forthcoming John Adams mini-series? In fact, two of this year’s original HBO films—Dirty War (terrorists set off a radiological bomb) and Sometimes in April (the Rwandan genocide)—were broadcast on public television, because HBO gave them away as an act of noblesse oblige to poor PBS.

What PBS was intended to be—America’s advertising-free oasis of exceptional programs—HBO has more or less become. The only rub is it costs 40 or 50 cents a day to watch, and thus isn’t truly “public.” So here are a couple of modest proposals. At a negligible cost to itself, HBO could donate its service to the poorest cable households—if you have a Medicaid card, say, you qualify. And for another $40 million or so a year—less than 4 percent of its annual earnings—the company could underwrite and air the two indisputable arguments for PBS’s continued existence, The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer and Frontline. It would still be sad to watch PBS finally wither away, but at least it wouldn’t be a disaster. We’d have our HBO.

I Want My HBO