Through the years there have been various theories regarding what it is about HBO that — especially during the pay service’s pioneering days, before cable competition mushroomed — set its programming apart.
Former chief Chris Albrecht once suggested the difference boiled down to motivating people to intently watch programs, unlike ad-supported TV, where the structural emphasis is on leading viewers into and out of the commercials. Then-NBC CEO Bob Wright, meanwhile, questioned the racy R-rated content in “The Sopranos” in a famous (or around HBO, notorious) 2001 memo circulated among his staff, asking what implications could be gleaned from the mob drama’s popularity when the network “could not and would not air (the show) on NBC because of the violence, language and nudity.”
Both arguments have some merit, but they take a back seat to a third — namely, a pay-TV model (tacitly adopted by some basic-cable channels as well) that says if enough people love your show, you don’t need that many to like it.
HBO — by deriving its revenue from monthly subscriptions — birthed and nurtured the idea of the programming quilt. Under this framework, each program must possess its own ardent following, and as long as those fans are satisfied — and less likely to cancel due to their passion for it — the pressure to deliver mass-appeal hits is diminished.
In other words, a little “Sex and the City” for women, “The Larry Sanders Show” (and later “Entourage”) for media folk in Hollywood and Manhattan, and splashes of boxing here and movies (along with latenight smut) predominantly for guys.
By contrast, network television traditionally operated under a big-tent theory, inviting as many people in as possible. This inevitably dictated that programs blunt rough edges so as not to offend, fostering the much-derided concept of “least objectionable programming.”
That began to change with CBS’ comedies in the 1970s and the NBC/MTM dramas of the ’80s, but HBO took that ball and ran with it — first in the form of prestigious TV movies, and then eventually with ambitious series.
The HBO quilt allowed “The Wire” to run for five seasons — not because so many people watched the crime show, but because those who did were so enamored with it as to provide a steady stream of word-of-mouth advertising, doubtless to the chagrin of their non-“Wire”-watching friends and family.
From this perspective, the main fallacy often perpetuated in relation to HBO is the notion “The Sopranos,” with its gaudy ratings, was emblematic of the service’s strategy when it was, rather, an anomaly. The most beloved HBO programs before and since have been far more niche-oriented affairs, with the vampire drama “True Blood” perhaps coming closest to the “Sopranos” blend of cultish appeal with mass devotion.
Moreover, what other cable networks discovered was that having programs with that kind of vice-like hold on a contingent of viewers — as in “I want my ‘Mad Men’?” — gives them with leverage in the marketplace, capable of putting an AMC or FX on the map in a way those channels weren’t before.
The final patch in the quilt, thankfully, is that as long as award voters, critics and members of the intelligentsia are inspired to pay HBO tribute, creative goodwill doesn’t necessarily have to translate into boffo ratings. The buzz factor alone — “Gee, that channel must be good; I keep reading New York Times op-eds about it” — is deemed another feather in the cap, if not quite the whole headdress.
In a way, HBO thus operates like the mirror image of a political campaign: Yes, the goal is to bring disparate constituencies to a common conclusion about the channel’s value, but after that, they needn’t agree on anything. That’s not only a prescription that can incubate great programming, but the perfect metaphor for our fractured, fragmented times.