It’s Not TV: HBO, The Company That Changed Television: Road Signs

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20) Road Signs

The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different.

Peter Drucker

Home Box Office has dodged more bullets than Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral. Going on the satellite in 1975 turned the company from a regional possibility into a national success; then came “hitting the wall” and the challenge of VCRs in the 1980s; and then there was the late 1990s course correction which turned the service into an original series king; and then there was the struggle of the Chris Albrecht years and the WGA strike.

Today, HBO has its big hits – Game of Thrones and True Blood, and its second tier, buzz-making winners like Girls, The Newsroom, Veep and Treme. Medical dramedy Getting On, and Looking – often described as a gay Sex and the City – show the service hasn’t gotten any shyer about trying to tackle provocative subject matter in risky ways.

And it’s worked. HBO is available in a good part of the world, and here, in its domestic market, the company has more subscribers than Showtime and Starz combined.

But success in television can turn on a dime: at this writing, True Blood and The Newsroom are looking at final seasons, Treme has wrapped up its run, and Getting On and Looking have yet to prove themselves. If HBO successfully fills those newly-made holes in its line-up, the media coverage will be about the resiliency of the leading pay-TV company. If the service doesn’t, it’s “Has HBO lost its mojo?” all over again.

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HBO’s challenges – both in the near- and long-term – are compounded by a massive reconfiguring of the TV game board. A decade ago, what made HBO’s programming Big Three – The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under – so damned big was they were close to being the only trees in the forest. HBO regularly dominated certain Emmy categories because the broadcast networks couldn’t compete against a programmer creating content without worrying about pleasing mass audiences, advertisers, and the FCC, and cable channels couldn’t or wouldn’t spend the money to make HBO-caliber shows. That forest has a lot more trees these days.

AMC has turned out three monsters – Mad Men, The Walking Dead, and the recently concluded Breaking Bad, this last getting the kind of huzzahs during its brilliant final season the industry hasn’t seen since the days of The Sopranos. FX’s winners include The Shield and Sons of Anarchy, off-the-wall It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the critically heralded comedy, Louie. USA has a full stable of fun stuff like Burn Notice and Suits, and the 2009 finale of its quirky cop show Monk was the highest-rated scripted episode of a cable show in the industry’s history, not broken until 2012 by The Walking Dead. Starz has had Spartacus, and, at this writing is rolling out the Michael Bay-produced pirate extravaganza, Black Sails. Showtime scored with Dexter, Nurse Jackie, Weeds, and has a bona fide hit in Homeland, IFC has Portlandia and Maron, Sundance can brag about Top of the Lake and French undead import The Returned. HBO no longer sweeps the Emmys not because of any qualitative falloff in its programming, but because it now has to fight against a slew of worthy contenders, some of whom also have the benefits of having a reach of over twice as many viewers, and who don’t charge extra fees for their service.

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HBO’s oncoming challenges aren’t only the comparatively simple one of other programmers now making a lot of great and adventurous TV. The very concept of what constitutes a programmer is also changing.

HBO may have more subs than the next two pay-TV services combined, but, in 2013, sub numbers for subscription streaming service Netflix surpassed those of HBO. Netflix has a movie library infinitely deeper than HBO’s (although HBO has a substantial edge in original programming), it’s monthly subscription fee is significantly less, and it’s an entirely on-demand service; watching what you want to watch when you want to watch however many times you want to watch. Netflix has also entered the original programming arena and in impressive fashion with, among other offerings, Orange Is the New Black, and the Emmy-winning political drama, House of Cards.

In 2013, according to a February 2014 Variety story, HBO took in almost $5 billion in revenues, so the service is hardly suffering from the competition. But, during the last quarter of ’13, Netflix revenues were running only $100 million behind those of HBO, and growing faster than those of the pay-TV channel. No wonder other outfits – Amazon, for one – are looking to horn in on Netflix’ streaming territory with their own slate of original programming (Amazon has the Garry Trudeau-created political comedy Alpha House starring John Goodman among others).

But, as I said, success in TV turns on a dime. Breaking Bad is gone and Mad Men is winding down at AMC which puts them in the same boat HBO was in when its Big Three folded up their tents. Netflix has started its original programming campaign with a bang, but the Netflix programming model fosters binge viewing, and it remains to be seen if the service can supply enough programming of Orange/Cards caliber on an on-going basis to keep subs interested year round, and do it on a cost-effective basis (the tab for House of Cards first two seasons is reportedly somewhere around $100 million, while Netflix’ monthly subscription rate runs about half the typical HBO monthly subscription). And that rapid Netflix growth rate we were just talking about? HBO’s been around for over 40 years; Netflix has the growth room of any newbie upstart, but at a certain point, it’s inevitable that they’ll plateau, too.

The service, with what I like to think is typical astuteness, saw the reconfiguration of the pay-TV landscape coming, and, also typically, adapted. In 2010, HBO introduced HBO Go, an online streaming service whose reach has since expanded from subscriber homes to a spectrum of portable devices including the iPad, iPhone, Android, Kindle Fire, Xbox 360, and others. HBO Go provides unlimited on-demand mobile access to the service’s original programming library as well as current movies under license. In other words, if you like HBO’s brand of TV, you’re not stuck watching it in your living room.

But HBO Go is not a stand-alone service, and it’s still tied to a conventional cable or satellite TV subscription. Stand-alone would be the next evolutionary step, but that raises a host of conflict issues with HBO’s cable affiliates which still provide the bulk of HBO’s business. Still, it shows the service hasn’t lost its eye for exploiting whatever new and viable technology comes down the pipe.

But what all this widening, mobile access promises in the way of programming is an open question. Back in 1992, Bruce Springsteen released the song, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On), which, as I recall from my early complaint-taking days, was not an uncommon cable subscriber complaint. Well, there’s a lot more than 57 channels out there, and now there’s cell phone apps and online streaming services, all feeding what has shaped up to be a bottomless consumer appetite for content. This expansion of the entertainment universe has fractured what used to be a comparatively monolithic mass audience into a thousand thousand shards, and it’s an open question about whether this reconfiguring playing field is going to be the cornucopia of engaging content providers and users fantasize it to be.

Bob Zitter, one of HBO’s hardware execs, gave a prescient warning in a speech at the Cable and Satellite Summit in Hong Kong in December of ’94:

…Despite the attention given these days to technology, we must remember the fact that consumers do not buy technology. Consumers seek out and buy entertainment and information…Will all (these new technologies) lead to new programming? The common wisdom is that these technological changes will increase the number of niche services…I expect that many services will contain “recycled” programming…Because vast amounts of money are required to produce compelling, interesting programming that people want to watch, it is not likely that companies will risk millions of dollars to produce attractive programming that will have uncertain transaction revenues as their only source of income.

Actually, Zitter was a bit off in his prediction. He was right in that all these new content providers – Netflix, Amazon, etc. – recognize that their business is content-driven and the last thing consumers need is yet another platform that deals in movies and TV shows that have already been recycled countless times. But he was wrong that these companies wouldn’t risk millions on new, original content. Their business – as Zitter said – depends on doing so.

Here’s the problem. You smash the mass audience into little slivers. Each sliver wants quality content, but quality content costs big bucks, and what do you do if there’s not enough big bucks in your sliver to pay for the quality content your sliver of the audience wants?

We’ve already had a taste of what happens in that dynamic.

I’m writing this about the time Jay Leno made his goodbyes (for the second and presumably final time) from The Tonight Show after a 22-year run to be replaced by Jimmy Fallon. When I was a kid, late night talk TV was Johnny Carson and that was it. According to a 2/4/14 Los Angeles Times story by Scott Collins on Leno’s Tonight Show departure, there are now “…more than 20 late-night talk shows on broadcast and cable, including (Conan) O’Brien’s TBS show, Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report and E!’s Chelsea Lately.”

That’s what TV programmers call “clutter,” and in the need to break through the clutter of too many choices, and audience segments too slender to support Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad caliber programming, more than one programmer has taken the low road: the exploitative, the sleazy, the lurid and prurient, the condescending and mocking. Think The Jersey Shore and Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Teen Mom. In a world of small audience slices, these kinds of shows are cheap and they draw enough of a viewing crowd to be an asset to their respective cable networks. It’s hard not to see the trend getting worse. If you draw an ancestral line backward from The Jersey Shore to its MTV great-grandparent, The Real World, which debuted in 1992, it’s clear it already has.

Look, TV – like any other entertainment medium – has always turned out more crap than good stuff. The success of HBO opened the floodgates to more TV, and more TV means more good stuff but a whole lot more crap.

What the success of these kinds of shows also suggest (keeping in mind that at its peak The Jersey Shore viewership was producing viewing numbers higher than those of a lot of broadcast network prime time shows) is a changing viewer sensibility, particularly among young viewers; the boys and girls that HBO and other programmers are counting on to keep them in business when they grow up. I think the chief worry for HBO and its competitors, basic and premium, is a new generation of audience that may not particularly like TV.

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In every class I teach, no matter the subject, I always start the semester with an informal poll, asking my students where they get most of their information, how much they read, how much time they spend with their various technologies. As a Baby Boomer who grew up glued to the Boob Tube, I’m startled at how low the numbers are when I ask, “How many of you watch TV for at least an hour every day.”

Among my 18-twenty-somethings, it tends to run 10-20%. But when I ask them how much time they spend online/texting/tweeting/videogaming, I’ll get 60-80% admitting to three-four hours a day, and some even more.

Ok, this is anecdotal, but the research shows a major shift in how the next generation of audience watches TV, and what they like to watch. Oh, they still watch a lot of TV, they just don’t watch it on TV. They prefer on-demand viewing to traditional “appointment” viewing, the convenience of watching anywhere to watching the home set, and – as the extravagant rates of music and video piracy suggest – they don’t particularly like paying much for their entertainment…or even paying anything.

Growing up in a universe of hundreds of channels and TV entertainment available through alternative on-demand pipelines like Netflix and Hulu, it’s an open question whether the next cohort of viewers will recognize network brands the way earlier generations of traditional viewers did, or give any particular network or service any more weight than others. I grew up watching TV when the Big Guys were still the three major broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, NBC – and when HBO came along, it was this “other thing” that stood apart and alone. But Millennial viewers have grown up with a mouse in one hand, a cell phone in the other, and hundreds of cable channels at their disposal. The brand names NBC and HBO may carry no more than equal weight to them with Comedy Channel and Nickelodeon.

Does this matter?

Well, if you’re a broadcaster or basic cable channel staying entirely or partially alive on advertising dollars, it matters a whole hell of a lot. No brand recognition, no network loyalty, and that’s a drain on viewership. When on-demand viewing outstrips appointment viewing, what kind of appeal can a network offer an advertiser? “Eventually a lot of people will see your commercial,” isn’t as enticing as, “We can deliver 13 million viewers to you for a Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. spot.”

Brand recognition may be even more important to pay-TV services like HBO and Showtime. Premium services recognized that two decades ago; that’s why they started putting self-identifying “bugs” on-screen during programs, so people would know they were watching what they were paying for. Will viewers devouring great gulps of programming from a variety of sources, watching stuff on the way to work on their phones, on their Kindle while on vacation – are they going to attach shows to networks to justify those monthly payments?

In 2012, I wrote a piece for Sound on Sight responding to a Forbes.com article by one of the site’s regular contributors, Paul Tassi, in which he seemed to be putting forth the idea that younger viewers wouldn’t steal so much content if content providers didn’t charge so much. Reading between the lines, I got the impression that any price providers could live with would be considered too high. As it happens, I came across Tassi’s piece about the same time I saw a 2/19/12 Associated Press story by Martha Irvine which cited a Columbia University survey showing that 70% of 18-29 year olds had availed themselves of illegally obtained video and/or music content. So, you put those two observations together, and what do you get?

Speaking in admittedly broad terms, you get a generation growing up that doesn’t want to pay what content providers want to charge. Considering these young consumers are just as willing to while away a couple of hours watching dancing cat videos and tweeting about what they’re having for dinner at that moment, the challenge for a premium service like HBO in continuing to drum up new subscribers at a not-cheap monthly rate in the numbers required just to stay even seems – to my eyes – to grow steeper in the next few years. There may not be a more resilient and flexible programmer than HBO, but primacy in TV programming is not eternal. Forty years ago, the broadcast networks held over 90% of TV viewing. Now, there’s nights they don’t even get half, and a cheap show about twenty-somethings getting vomit-on-themselves drunk in a beach house can outdraw a $2-3 million per episode of network drama.

Things change.

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One more thing, and this doesn’t really have anything to do with Home Box Office other then they were the outfit that led the TV industry to this point.

For as long as TV has been popular, going back over a half-century there have been critics, guardians of the public morality, sociologists, spiritual leaders and everyday moms and dads complaining about the myriad ways TV was the mental equivalent of junk food: bad for you. It made people intellectually lazy, kids spent time watching it when they should’ve been doing homework or out in the open air playing, it hypnotized husbands during sports seasons, wives during the daytime soap operas.

And yet…

With only three major networks, there was still something cohering about it. TV – for all its junk food aspects – could, at least at times, act as a pop culture glue holding us all together. As I’m writing this, it’s the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival in America. Everybody and his brother, mother and sister watched their U.S. debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, the same way that just a few months earlier, we had all mourned together when a sniper’s bullet took the life of John Kennedy. We all watched the news footage from Vietnam, the Watergate hearings that ultimately brought down Richard Nixon. We all watched The Day After and shared what, at the time, may have been the country’s worst nightmare: nuclear destruction.

And, ok, let’s get a little less momentous. There were only three networks. We even knew the shows we didn’t watch. We all got the same pop culture references/jokes/catch phrases. There was a certain cultural/sociological unity to the place where we lived. What we experienced on TV we often experienced, more or less, as one people.

With more choice came less sharing. All that choice – on TV, on the Internet – fosters a separateness. People find the news they agree with, prefer distraction over discourse, and are capable of tailoring a media bubble suited to their specific tastes and wants.

Let me give that to you in practical terms. Back in The Day, we may have thought coverage of political campaigns boring, but they took up prime time on the only three networks we had; we couldn’t help but know what was going on.

During the last presidential primaries, I tried to have a conversation about the Republican Big Tuesday primary contests with two Public Administration majors in a class I was teaching at one of my state’s largest universities. I asked them who’d done well on Big Tuesday. Not only did they not know, but they didn’t know it had been Big Tuesday, they didn’t know what Big Tuesday was, and they didn’t know who any of the Republican contestants were. And these were two young people hoping to eventually get jobs in government.

HBO’s Michael Fuchs, whose company launched the modern cable age, took a dim view of where all this was going back in 1993 at a conference on the “Future of Television” sponsored by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “We run the risk of the technology sort of dehumanizing television,” he said, “of it outstripping the content…I feel a cumulative drop in the IQ of our audience. There’s a drop in the concentration spans.”

The syndrome is not distinctly or solely American. The French love Dallas and the Japanese like pie-in-the-face comedy. Give the world pay-TV and what we’ve seen so far is that while they do have an interest in news, either before or just after they get that, they invariably want music videos, sports, and movie channels filled with American movies.

While some may draw comfort from this homogeneity saying it proves that we are all brothers and sister under the sun, that we are more alike than different, again, the evidence indicates otherwise. Yes, maybe we all like to watch the same frothy stuff on TV, but you don’t need to be a Harvard grad in International Studies to leaf through any newspaper and understand that the world isn’t getting any friendlier, gentler, or more peaceful. Whatever people both here in The States and abroad are learning from TV, it’s not how to get along.

Still, the only thing certain about the future is that it is uncertain. You never know what it’ll be like until you get there. I could be all wrong about this. I’d like to be. I really would.

– Bill Mesce


Click here to read every article in this series!

Preface

Introduction 

Towards Felix The Cat

Baby Steps

In The Beginning Was The Word: Radio

The Numbers Racket

Wasteland 

Greener Grass

Walson’s Mountain

The Green Channel 

Into The Skies, Junior Birdmen!

 Title Fights: The King of Pay-TV

The Movie Duels

The Wall

An Original Voice

Expanding the Brand Part 1

Expanding the Brand Part 2

Golden Age Part 1

Golden Age Part 2

Golden Age Part 3

Fall and Rise 




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