HBO takes chances, reaps rewards

124 Emmy nominations honor cable channel that nurtures creativity

July 16, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

HBO set a new standard of dominance in American television yesterday with 124 Emmy nominations - almost twice its nearest competitor, NBC, which had 65. Not even CBS in the early days of television, when it was known as "the Tiffany of networks," owned the high ground of programming the way these nominations say HBO does today.

The numbers across the board for individual HBO productions are eye-popping: 21 nominations for Angels in America, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that HBO made into a miniseries; 20 for The Sopranos, television's most acclaimed drama series; 11 for Sex and the City, the sitcom that dared to get serious in its farewell season; and nine for a single film, Something the Lord Made, about a white surgeon and a black lab technician who together pioneered heart surgery in the 1940s at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

But what makes the overall performance of the premium cable channel so impressive is that it comes in a society and television climate otherwise so fragmented. CBS had only two competitors, ABC and CBS, in the 1960s when it reigned. HBO has more than 200 today. This year, CBS got 44 nominations and ABC 33. Fox earned 31.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about the Emmy Award nominations incorrectly listed CBS' competitors in the 1960s. They were ABC and NBC.
The Sun regrets the error.

There was no shortage of theories yesterday as to how and why HBO managed to leave the networks eating its creative dust. Network TV is boxed in by forces that limit its artistic potential - federal regulations and the economics of appealing to the largest possible audience, say industry analysts. Pay cable TV, on the other hand, can say or show almost anything it wants as long as it pleases a large enough niche of subscribers to make it profitable.

Network "broadcasters need to get a large audience, and a large audience typically has been gotten by appealing to middle American tastes," says Lawrence Lichty, a film and television professor at Northwestern University. "We're playing on two fields with two different standards and two different sets of rules."

Howard Suber, who has taught film and television at UCLA for 35 years, said HBO has taken chances with young, unproven writers and producers, and that has led to smart and successful shows. But networks, he said, are unwilling to take those chances, preferring to go with proven commodities who have a record of delivering big audiences.

Word of mouth

And he says HBO has succeeded in targeting a niche audience willing to pay for what it considers better TV programs - an audience that has created significant buzz for HBO's shows and convinced others to subscribe. (HBO has about 40 million subscribers; the networks reach 108 million homes.)

"They're signing up specifically because you're at work, you're talking to your friends and they say, `Did you watch The Sopranos last night?' and you have to say, `I don't subscribe,'" Suber said. "The game of one-upmanship is what drives our culture at every level.

"And you don't want to have to admit to the people who are your friends but who are judging you that you have fallen behind culturally."

Suber says HBO programs are, in many ways, better than what can be found in network TV - in terms of writing, acting and direction. But he said they retain the basic format that has marked TV since its inception.

"I've sat there for several years as I watched both Sex and the City and The Sopranos saying these are soap operas for intellectuals," he said. "It's the soap opera structure, which is one thing after another every three minutes, but we get all the sex and nudity we can possibly handle."

Award-winning producers, writers and filmmakers who have worked with HBO over the years described a remarkably similar set of happy experiences with the network. They say there's a formula in place at HBO that brings out the best in them and makes for great television.

"They're fearlessly creative," said Michael Patrick King, executive producer of Sex and the City. "They totally embrace the risk of an idea from an artist. And then, they totally back it up financially and marketing-wise. They really put their money where their mouths are."

Susan Hadary won an Oscar with Bill Whiteford for King Gimp, a documentary shown first on HBO and then entered in Academy Award competition. It featured Dan Keplinger, a young artist from Towson who was born with severe cerebral palsy. She used the term "creative courage" to describe the HBO formula.

"They are willing to take risks that no one else will," Hadary said. "Lots of people were turned off by the subject matter of our film and by working with independent producers, but not HBO. And once you have an HBO credit, everyone wants to work with you."

Total support

The formula is fairly simple, Chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht, longtime leader at HBO, said yesterday in a telephone interview:

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