Posts tagged: HBO

TV or not TV? That is the question.

For a supremely gifted actress, one who has tackled roles as diverse as an 18th century maid-come-lover of the Marquis de Sade

 a romantically disillusioned 50’s Baltimore suburban housewife and a brusque illiterate ex-Nazi officer, Kate Winslet is seemingly dreadful at playing the role of a delighted Kate Winslet. On hearing that she had landed the ‘Outstanding Lead Performance in a Miniseries’ award at this year’s Emmy’s, the Oscar winning actress performed what at first seemed the most exaggerated display of glee I have yet to see – reverberating her fists like a child who has just seen the long-whined-for aisle sweets land plum in the shopping basket.

I write, ‘at first seemed’ because ever since the Emmy’s I have been brooding on the incident. I have been wracked with irresolution and puzzlement. Was Winslet acting or was her reaction genuine?  Was it that she felt she needed to act overjoyed because she has already won an Oscar and this, a TV award, was small-fry in comparison? Were Winslet’s mannerisms an affected public flourishing when privately she was hardly registering emotionally or was she sincerely euphoric and her bodily actions merely the unquenchable outpouring of emotion that comes with all victory?

Although I have yet to deduce the definitive answer (perhaps you, blog-reader, can help me out with this) I’m led to believe that it lies in how the status-quo of TV as an aesthetic medium has developed over the last two decades. Throughout the nineties and naughties (apologies) it was often assumed that quality drama trickled down from the silver screen onto DVD before belatedly spilling onto TV a fair few years out-of-date. Alongside outmoded films, TV was, dramatically, the preserve of well-loved but dubiously acted & written soaps. Steadily however, this began to change and it is a transformation that begins in the land of Hollywood, North America, and with the apotheosis of pay-tv. 

Fifteen years ago, US pay-tv (or cable as it is named in the US) was mostly renowned for repeats, music videos and hot-gospelling evangelism.  Amongst the rubble, HBO initially defined itself with the now old one-two of broadcasting high profile boxing matches and films. Although more entertaining than watching Pastor Warren ranting brimstone and repentance, this appointment-to-view programming model (hence the name Home Box Office) still depended on leapfrogging the commercial queue.  The question as to why one would subscribe would be answered ‘Because I get to see the films earlier’. HBO bought the rights to other’s content, be it films or sporting events, and this access maintained the turnover of subscriptions. Then, in an inspired gamble, they decided to try their hand at producing their own hour-long dramas.

Now, fifteen years later, HBO has become synonymous with creating, broadcasting and then selling polished drama. With a string of hits from The Sopranos to Sex and the City, Six Feet Under to The Wire, HBO has re-established TV as a medium capable of turning out intelligent storylines that revel in loose ends and morally ambiguous characters.  It has also been a money spinner. Not only has it made HBO less reliant on buying content from the studios and production houses, they also make money off the distribution of their own content, be it DVD sales or the establishment of foreign partnerships, such as that which brought about Sky Atlantic. In 2010 HBO turned over $4 billion. This is money which is then recycled back into that which it has brought it success: cinematic drama. For instance, the pilot episode of the recent Steve Buscemi fronted prohibition drama, Boardwalk Empire, cost a whopping $20 million. This is smart television for Smart TVs.

In the words of the esteemed British playwright David Hare, ‘The future of American film lies on television’. The question remains however as to whether the peculiarity of the pay-tv system that has enabled US channels to turn to exportable high-end drama is able to be replicated in the British commercial market. One instant hitch is the assumed schism between the artistic licence of the writer and the perceived puritanism of the advertiser. Because HBO doesn’t run adverts the writers don’t have to tailor scripts to either the digression of the advertisers or, strictly speaking, to the tastes of the viewership. They are in the enviable position of being able to be patient, allowing initially unpopular shows such as Treme to germinate rather than flower instantaneously. As cinema has become more or more obsessed with the franchise and the blockbuster, this is the initial draw for many established screenwriters: they can write what they want.

Quality attracts quality – when the screenwriters are on board, so too usually are the stars. Not only therefore has pay-tv have budget to compete, it also has the artistic independence and depth which can attract the likes of Winslet. This is backed-up by the fact that the main British broadcasters which have pushed drama akin to that of HBO’s are, in essence, subscription networks, the BBC and Sky. BBC recently aired Hare’s first screenplay for the last twenty years, Page Eight, which stared Bill Nighy and Rachel Weisz, and Sky Atlantic remains the landing pad for sophisticated US output such as the recent Sean Bean vehicle Game of Thrones

Despite the need to cater for viewers and advertisers alike, it is my prediction that the HBO bug will spread further into the British commercial market. Not only have we seen from the American network AMC, producers of the multi-award winning Mad Men, that potentially abrasive drama can run successfully on commercial television, in the UK the likes of Downton Abbey, written by Julian Fellowes and starring the incomparable Maggie Smith, has already proven that betting on quality can pay dividends. Drama is only going to get slicker and smarter. Therefore, it is no surprise to see that whence actors would once deliberate between performing in a film and a spate in the theatre, that the question ‘TV or not TV?’ has entered the stage.  


 Written by Samuel Dawson

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