Sunday 17 December 2017

Why $15 a month is a small price to pay for quality

Guy Adams in Los Angeles explains the ethos that makes HBO so unmissable

Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon and Kim Cattral in the HBO hit series Sex and the City
Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon and Kim Cattral in the HBO hit series Sex and the City

Guy Adams

IT ISN'T hard to be snooty about American television, where a flick through the channels usually reveals a turgid mixture of chat, formulaic drama, reality TV and absurdly parochial local news, interspersed with roughly 20-minutes-per-hour of commercial breaks.

Yet for every complaint you'll find an armchair pundit who'll tell you this nation of telly addicts enjoys some of the world's finest programming - provided, that is, they're prepared to pay for it.

Exhibit A, in the defence of America's TV industry, is HBO, or Home Box Office, the New York-based cable channel which charges a subscription fee of $15 a month - or £100 a year - for its seven channels of original drama, sport, films and documentaries.

Even in the depths of recession, roughly 30 million homeowners figure it's a small price to pay for the ability to enjoy water-cooler chat about hit shows such as The Wire, Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Entourage.

The key to HBO's critical success lies in its business model, which allows it to take risks. Normal network channels, which rely purely on advertising revenue, try to make shows that are all things to all people (like Friends) in order to draw mass audiences of 10 or 20 million. On cable, by contrast, a programme can thrive on just two million viewers. And that simple fact frees HBO to court loyal subscribers by creating quirkier shows that might become cult hits.

Sometimes, this means they break fundamental rules about successful TV drama. The Sopranos, for example, became one of their most famous shows because its creator, David Chase, was given freedom to make his hero Tony Soprano morally repugnant.

A similar thinking saw the network green-light The Wire, a cop drama that on paper simply shouldn't work: it follows members of the underclass, speaking an often unintelligible lingo, and has meandering plot lines in which good guys rarely triumph.

Despite its lack of mass-market appeal, its forensic dissection of urban decay turned the drama into a critical sensation that ran for five seasons, won sackfulls of awards, and was lucratively syndicated to global high-brow audiences.

Because subscribers must seek out HBO, the channel is also freed from the moral constraints of mass-market television networks, whose executives edit scripts to iron out edgy humour, swear-words, violence, and anything that might offend Middle America.

Nudity is more or less forbidden on US network television, while even moderately graphic sex scenes are cut from films before broadcast. HBO, by contrast, fills shows with titillation, knowing that it doesn't have to worry about upsetting prudish viewers or advertisers.

Barely an episode of Entourage, the brilliant drama about a Hollywood agent, passes without a pair of breasts appearing. And the network's most successful new drama of last season was Hung, a dark comedy that follows a well-endowed male prostitute.

Away from the realm of TV drama, HBO also makes its own films, and either buys or commissions highbrow documentaries. After Hurricane Katrina, it allowed Spike Lee to make a four-hour documentary called When the Levees Broke. Its Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired prompted the film-maker to launch his current appeal against his 1972 rape conviction.

So successful has HBO been in creating new programmes, and nurturing in-house talent, that it has for years claimed ownership of more Emmys, Golden Globes and other awards than any other institution.

Recent times have been a touch harder, thanks mostly to the end of old staples such as Sex and the City and The Sopranos, and the rise of rival networks like AMC, which screens Mad Men, the current critical darling of American TV, and Showtime, which has Dexter and Californication.

But HBO's brand nonetheless remains a symbol of artistic quality and modish independence - despite the fact that, in a truly American piece of irony, the firm has been owned, since shortly after its launch in 1972, by the vast, multi-national corporation Time Warner.

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