Cabler willing to offend some with shows that lure discerning niche
“The Newsroom,” HBO’s new drama from Aaron Sorkin, possesses all the trappings expected of premium cable: adventurous subject matter, a high-profile cast and dialogue crafted by an Oscar- and Emmy-winning writer.Yet if the project speaks to one brand of elitism the pay channel consciously embraces, for some it will also produce inevitable charges of Hollywood’s liberal elitism — especially when Sorkin’s characters begin deriding the Tea Party or tossing jabs at Rush Limbaugh. Beyond its general profile, HBO has dared to tackle topical material — particularly in its movies and documentaries — in ways seemingly preordained to raise the ire of the conservative cottage industry built around selective outrage, which, as an effective publicity tool, demonizes the media. Most recently, supporters of 2008 Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin took umbrage over the depiction of her in the movie “Game Change,” the latest in a series of political dramas (“Too Big to Fail,” “Recount”) from the network. The perceived slights don’t end there. HBO is also home to Bill Maher’s weekly program, and a place where two high-class dramas set decades (and even universes) apart, “True Blood” and “Boardwalk Empire,” each portray Christian evangelical characters as hypocrites. (Also not likely to sit well with conservatives: the strange revelation that a replica of George W. Bush’s head turned up on a pike in “Game of Thrones.”) Finally, there has been the varied fare devoted to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, including David Simon’s drama “Treme,” and Spike Lee’s documentaries, starting with “When the Levees Broke.” HBO rejects any contention that its programming exhibits a leftward tilt, suggesting execs were drawn to Sorkin because of his writing prowess, not his politics. And it is fair to note the channel’s diverse menu recently included an utterly flattering George H.W. Bush biography, “41,” produced by longtime friend and supporter Jerry Weintraub. While acknowledging criticism from certain conservatives, HBO co-president Richard Plepler notes the fact-based movies, in particular, go to great lengths to present issues in an even-handed fashion. As for the “liberal Hollywood” perception, he says, “If we take complicated history and treat it with respect and fairness, I think we should get credit for belying the stereotype. … It is our responsibility when dealing with matters of history to be scrupulous and fair.” In part, HBO’s status as a potential lightning rod is an unavoidable byproduct of its determination to attract passion projects from the industry’s biggest creative names — a talent roster clearly weighted toward more high-profile, outspoken liberals than conservatives. To be clear, this isn’t meant to imply “Game Change” — a meticulously sourced and in ways sympathetic portrait of Palin that was unabashedly kind to her running mate, John McCain — was unfair, but rather that merely broaching the topic of her qualifications and knowledge of the issues (even based on a book that presented a first-hand account of such things) was destined to be characterized as a “politically motivated hatchet job,” as it was by her defenders at websites like the Andrew Breitbart-founded Big Hollywood. In these polarized, hyper-partisan times, even those seeking to be objective often see their motives second-guessed and contorted — a point Sorkin emphasizes in “Newsroom” — and dabbling in provocative topics, a pay-cable mandate, comes at a price. Perhaps the more intriguing question, from a marketing perspective, is where the trade-off lies. HBO, after all, represents the ultimate in niche programming — a quilt patched together to serve a variety of interests, from men (mostly) watching boxing to young women (mostly) watching “Girls.” HBO, understandably, doesn’t want to be politically pigeonholed. When the goal is to maximize green, why risk alienating broad swatches of the country that are red or blue? Yet does HBO benefit from being viewed as a “liberal” network in certain circles? And are those inclined to gravitate toward programs like “The Newsroom” enough to offset others rolling their eyes at the latest “attack” from the coastal elites? The alchemy of pay-TV subscriptions flummoxes a hard-and-fast accounting, but one can argue HBO’s business model, more than most, is built to withstand the vagaries of such criticism — and not being TV in the conventional sense has its advantages: Practically speaking, airing programming that motivates consumers to buy in is an antidote against the old big-tent, “least objectionable programming” strategy that aims to prevent viewers from tuning out. So while admitting you’re not for everyone remains frowned upon, in practice the potential value in inviting controversy — as opposed to fleeing from it — is simply one more way in which the media game, at least, has most definitely changed.