NEW YORK — “The Sopranos” returns this week, as anyone who hasn’t been subletting Saddam Hussein’s hidey-hole could attest. Still, to emphatically dot the exclamation point, Home Box Office hosted the kind of premiere party here reminiscent of a Tyco bash, minus only the vodka-dispensing David sculptures.
At a time when networks are talking about reducing costs while they serve burgers and fries at press events, HBO doles out the big shrimp (delightfully seasoned on little skewers). HBO chief Chris Albrecht might have been engaged in some puffery when he said there is “only one show in the history of television that has its premieres at Radio City Music Hall,” but it’s fair to say ABC didn’t bestow similar largess on “Married to the Kellys.”
The lavish shindig represents just one way the pay service, positioned at something of a crossroads, demonstrates it is playing by rules unlike anyone else in TV or even movies, by virtue of the freedom to define success strictly on its own terms.
Somehow, all the “bada-bing” eventually translates into “ka-ching,” to the tune of an estimated $800 million in annual profits. Nobody, however, seems to have the foggiest clue as to precisely how the connection works.
Clearly, though, all those sophisticated series are just the beginning, the fuel that powers the entertainment industry’s most finely tuned marketing engine. For all the talk about classy or provocative programs, their usefulness to HBO is less about ratings — almost everyone else’s main currency — than their central role in wooing opinion-makers, who in turn convey the perception that this is “must-buy” TV.
Toward that end, HBO spends proudly, even defiantly. Each new gala appears determined to trump the last, with parties that evoke the biggest movie premieres on steroids.
The spare-no-expense “Sopranos” showcase packed Radio City (even the post-production people from Los Angeles were flown in, which series creator David Chase called “very generous”), then steered the throng through long lines to a post-show bash at Rockefeller Center. The process felt a little like Disneyland, only Space Mountain was closed.
Helping capture the HBO mindset, as one industry veteran put it, “They would like to be seen as something so separate from TV you can’t even categorize it.”
Indeed, for HBO, extravagance goes beyond the usual “Let’s make the talent feel like they made a (not-for-TV) movie by screening it” imprimatur. Events for the miniseries “Band of Brothers” were held in Normandy as well as at the Hollywood Bowl, complete with a regiment of surviving veterans featured in the World War II epic.
As I’ve mentioned before, the channel’s media savvy also extends to its courtship of key press outlets, beginning with the New York Times, whose Sunday Arts & Leisure section often feels like an HBO newsletter surrounded by movie ads. And because of the Times’ agenda-setting influence, others follow suit.
This isn’t to dismiss the quality of HBO’s programming: There’s another gem, “Deadwood,” set to debut this month. Yet once fed through the cabler’s Willy Wonka-like marketing contraption, even failures and near-misses can yield salutary effects.
Consider “K Street,” its peculiar reality/drama hybrid, which generated enthusiastic buzz in Washington thanks to cameos by politicos, consultants and reporters. Never mind that no one could figure out just what the hell the show was about and that relatively few people watched it.
Moreover, the channel prides itself on commanding space not just within arts sections but other parts of the newspaper as well — a feat achieved by “K Street,” “From the Earth to the Moon” and many of its documentaries.
HBO revels equally in its Washington connections and dominance of the nonfiction awards circuit, which has begun to spread into the world of independent film. Admittedly, it’s hard to be too “independent” when the checks are being signed by a division of Time Warner, but with so few true indies left, why split hairs?
What HBO has really achieved, in remarkable fashion, is to make its programs echo — in much the way a funhouse mirror expands and elongates an image. By focusing original series efforts steadfastly on Sunday nights, the channel has been able to produce and promote them in a manner that the major broadcasters can only dream of, given the far greater number of hours they fill with episodic series.
Other cable networks have gotten wise to this tactic — the signature series, hoisted on a pedestal, which puts a high gloss on the channel, obscuring the schlocky movies and reruns surrounding it. With USA’s “Monk,” Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” FX’s “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck,” and Showtime’s “Queer as Folk,” it’s apparent HBO will no longer have the playing field quite so much to itself in fighting for attention among niche-oriented programmers.
At this point, though, everyone is still playing catch-up, and HBO appears determined to keep it that way. Of course, the service also has learned that raising the bar comes with its own risks, with the departure of “Sex and the City” and inevitable rubout of “The Sopranos” ratcheting up pressure to anoint worthy heirs.
In that sense, HBO’s “It’s not TV” slogan becomes a bit of a double-edged sword, staking out high ground while fostering difficult-to-fulfill expectations. In addition, growing the subscriber base will be challenging, given that nearly three-quarters of TV households (and well over half of those with cable or a dish) have resisted the channel’s widely publicized charms thus far.
That said, in a world where “free TV” is increasingly becoming a dated concept, HBO has a brand name that other networks have good reason to envy. Because while its shows are still just shows, HBO really isn’t TV in the traditional sense — namely, a medium where programs exist to create an environment in which to sell soap.
By contrast, HBO sells nothing more or less than HBO — meaning that getting people to watch the shows, ultimately, isn’t as important as feeling like they’re expected to get in line for the next big ride.