Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Socialist’s Journal: HBO’s Example

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*HBO adopted the tagline “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” to denote its separation from the average fare on other television networks.

And for most of cable history, HBO has indeed been ahead of its competitors. Unfortunately for the people at HBO, they are no longer setting the pace; but fortunately for HBO they are still able to keep pace.

HBO stands for Home Box Office. From its inception in the early 1980s HBO offered cable television subscribers blockbuster movies, concerts, and shows. As the name implied HBO allowed people at home to access top tier theater offerings. But as much as their live events were a draw, HBO pioneered scripted shows that tackled unseen stories and would not have been approved on network television.

In the 1960s The Defenders was the drama about lawyers, in the 1980s it was L.A. Law, today you have your pick of half a dozen. In 1984 the four out of the five nominees for outstanding drama series were exactly what you might expect today:  two detective shows (Magnum P.I., & Cagney and Lacey), a hospital show (St. Elsewhere), and a cop show (Hill Street Blues). The last nominee was a semi expected school show (Fame). All of those shows were entertaining as I recall – but they were definitely more of the same kinds of shows that have always been broadcast and continue to be broadcast on network television.  HBO broke away from this pattern by beginning 1st and Ten, a 30 minute drama about a fictional football franchise and the highs and lows therein. HBO dared to make a show that went outside of the normal conventions of television.

In the 1990s HBO started the trend of producing shows that in the past would have been made as motion pictures. Series such as Oz, and The Sopranos were not new material but were given a new format. And with dozens of hours to tell a story over the course of multiple years instead of two hours over the course of an afternoon, the stories became richer and more fulfilling.  But HBO’s success spawned imitators. And now it finds itself beset by challengers of all types and genres who have learned from HBO about how to write, cast, direct, and produce the best stories in the best ways. In just the past few years Showtime had Dexter, AMC had Breaking Bad, and FX had Sons of Anarchy. I didn’t watch all of these shows but I know enough people did to recognize that they were successful following HBO’s blueprint.

Of course HBO is still attempting to hold on to their standing with Game of Thrones. But I feel it is grasping at past glory rather than planting a new flag. There are only so many hours of programming to fill (even with half dozen channels under their control). Because there are dozens of competitors, and because they have to keep up with their comedy, sports, and documentary production, HBO can never be heads and shoulders above the field the way it was 20 years ago.

Kudos to HBO for showing everyone the way it could be and in the process revolutionizing American entertainment.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.




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