Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why is HBO Winning?

While watching this week’s season finale of Game of Thrones (how good was that?!?), I got to thinking about HBO and the place it has in my weekly viewing.  I have a fairly extensive cable package, and to be honest most of my DVR is filled with OVP films that have aired on Turner Classic Movies (if only I could figure out a way to watch 100 hours worth of movies at once), but the season passes are filled with HBO shows: GoT, Girls, Veep, Looking, and most likely the upcoming The Leftovers.  HBO has earned an incredibly dominant position in the cable landscape in terms of critical acclaim, ratings, and pop culture importance.  Admittedly not every show on the channel is a huge hit, and the channel doesn’t have as many shows as a broadcast network, but what is it about HBO that has allowed it to, for the last decade, become to television what Apple has been to technology and what Pixar was in the Aughts to animation?  I figured I’d take a look, and came up with these five key attributes that seem to be driving HBO’s creative dominance.

1. Focus on Critical Acclaim/Brand Importance

The best example of this is Looking, a recent hit show that had people talking in a way few new HBO shows have done since Girls and Veep.  Looking was a pop culture moment, but it had low ratings, and though it improved in quality as the season went on, most channels would have canned the slow burn show.  Instead, HBO gave it a second season, and even did it some favors by promoting some of the best elements of the show (Lauren Weedman and Russell Tovey) to regular status next season.  This is something you would rarely see on a network, and is something that HBO fans are aware of-they can trust in the channel to deliver when a show is quality, for the most part (Enlightened fans, I’m aware this isn’t a 100% rule).

2. There is a guaranteed season

The biggest problem with network (and to a lesser extent cable) seasons is that there is no guarantee to the audience that a show will continue past the next episode.  I may think that a show like Last Resort is the bee’s knees and something that I want to watch every week, but there’s so much risk in getting emotionally involved with a show that you follow religiously each week just to know that low ratings could push your critically beloved series off into the dustbin.  With HBO (and admittedly, all premium cable), the shows are guaranteed to air all of the episodes-they won’t just end them based on shoddy ratings last week.  That involves a bit more trust and stronger word of mouth.  It also means that you have more time for the show to enter the pop culture zeitgeist, and if need be, for people to catch up on HBO Go (this isn’t one of the points, but HBO Go is clearly the gold standard of watching television online, and this is also a part of why HBO gets so many kudos-it’s wonderfully easy to see their shows if you have a subscription)

3. HBO Makes Trends, It Doesn’t Follow Them

A lot of cable television channels have online platforms and critical acclaim, but still aren’t the exciting giant that HBO is.  I think part of that is that HBO doesn’t chase trends-they make them.  A show like The Sopranos or Game of Thrones or Sex and the City can spawn multiple clones across different channels, but you won’t find them on HBO.  Instead their most recent shows are a gay-themed dramedy like Looking, the quirky Silicon Valley, and the trickily told True Detective.  They are not resting on their past performance to inform their future, and you likely won’t see another Game of Thrones clone on the channel for years to come.

4. No Reliance on Big Names for Recurring Series

There are exceptions to this rule (Steve Buscemi, Laura Dern, Julia Louis-Dreyfus), but by-and-large most of the regular series court relative unknowns for their leads, and certainly for the supporting roles.  There is little reliance on already known quantities, which means that the audience is investing in actors that they don’t see everywhere else.  This is mostly what I think separates them from even Showtime (their closest competitor-Netflix needs a few more hits everyone likes before they can compete…ditto AMC).  Even when they do cast a big name or well-known commodity, they cheekily play with your perception of the actor.  What would happen if you make Elaine Benes Vice President?  Or if you took an ancillary character from Lord of the Rings and made him a nobleman in another magical kingdom?  Brilliant casting goes a long way, and no channel does it better or with greater reliance on performance rather than name than HBO.

5. They Have Kept the Miniseries and TV Movie

Nothing lends quite as much credence to a channel as having movie stars randomly falling over themselves to star in some of your content, and that’s surely the case with HBO.  They have continued to invest heavily in winning bushels of Emmys with their 3-4 annual movies and miniseries.  When you have recent Oscar winners like Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, and Matthew McConaughey using you as their next stop after the Kodak, you are doing something profoundly right.  They have gotten to the point where doing an HBO film is just as prestigious on-paper as doing a stint on Broadway or making a drama with an auteur.  That’s enormous for their brand, and goes a long way in giving a sheen to the rest of their content.  It’s on HBO, it must be good.

Those are at least my thoughts in understanding the dominance of HBO-what are yours?  Do you think any other channels can rival it for critical/cultural supremacy?  Do you think network television should be looking to it for advice?  And what is your favorite HBO show?  Share in the comments!

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