Home Box Office (HBO) is almost singlehandedly the reason critics now say television is more interesting than movies and why thousands of Australians buy and steal so many TV series off the net. In the late 90s the US cable channel redefined the TV landscape by producing a number of original programmes themselves such as OZ, Sex and The City, The Wire and The Sopranos.
HBO tries to show a typical three act story each week, giving each show more of a traditional movie or play format. The benefit of a television schedule is that producers have time to develop characters and their motives, so that unlike a movie (which is digested in one sitting) you’re forced to ruminate on the characters to the extent that you feel you know them. HBO also allows artistic flexibility when it comes to adult content such as explicit language, sexual themes and violence. This means some shows are much better artistically realised than they would be on free-to-air TV.
It’s not TV. It’s HBO.
The slogan ‘It’s Not TV. It’s HBO’ was introduced in 1996 as a smart way of differentiating a HBO series from its competition by distinguishing its original series as something unique and of value – something audiences cannot get elsewhere.
This slogan defines HBO’s business model. HBO’s business model doesn’t rely on ratings for the financial side of things to work, as it’s a subscription-based service. HBO’s goal is to make their brand worthy of subscription, so they reward quality without the weekly concerns other networks have such as appeasing advertisers and keeping up ratings. Because HBO receives this premium subscription revenue they can create higher quality content. More money doesn’t always equal better content, but there is certainly a correlation.
HBO’s TV series doesn’t use standardised formats but instead developed a new genre called ‘Quality TV’. Quality TV is a term used by television scholars, television critics and broadcasting advocacy groups to describe a genre or style of television programming that they argue is of higher quality due to its subject matter, style, or content.
Quality TV’s pedigree is evaluated by a number of subjective calculations and value judgements. According to the US group viewers for Quality TV is: “something we anticipate…[it] focuses more on relationships… [and] explores character, it enlightens, challenges, involves and confronts the viewer; it provokes thought…”
HBO have pushed forward a new era of quality television. Their model has allowed many other cable networks such as AMC (Breaking Bad), FX (Sons of Anarchy) and Showtime (Dexter) as well new media such as Netflix (House of Cards) to produce high quality programming that explores adult content such as drugs, explicit language, violence and sexuality.
The Sundance Channel’s recent show Rectify and USA Network’s Suits are a clear example of more and more channels producing original content. It will be interesting to see how long this trend will last.
Two TV shows that may have missed your radar (because they’re not on HBO…)
Suits: USA Network’s version of Game of Thrones set in a law firm. Everyone wants their name on the door, and there’s a lot of maneuvering and politicking to try and get there. What distinguishes Suits from other legal drama series’ is that there’s rarely any courtroom scenes: it’s about negotiation settlements, allowing the characters to put on weekly dick measuring contests full of bravado and ego.
Rectify: Is the Sundance Channel’s first original series from the producers of Breaking Bad. The show centres on Daniel, a man that has been sitting on Death Row for the past 19 years for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend. Due to new DNA evidence he is released back into his small town community which he no longer knows. His re-entry into the outside world may prove as unforgiving as prison. The first series does not indicate whether or not Daniel is innocent or guilty, it instead plays on the viewers’ minds, making them question if they would allow him back into their community.