Sunday, March 15, 2009

The myth of HBO

The UK is currently seeing a bit of a crisis in TV, with major broadcasters seeing falling revenues, cutting budgets, and cancelling shows.

In the midst of this media commentators keep talking about how brilliant the American cable channel HBO (Home Box Office) is, and how that is the way forward for the UK. On Friday night's Late Review this went unchallenged, and a few weeks earlier Greg Dyke (who should know better) made a film for The Culture Show comparing the budgets for the BBC and HBO, and thought that HBO did far better than the BBC with less money.

But it's all a myth. Every time I've been to the UK I've looked forward to watching a bit of HBO. Perhaps they'll be showing an episode of The Sopranos, followed by an episode of The Wire, followed by an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. No such luck. Last time I was there (July 2008) the evening schedule was dominated by Bean's Holiday, the poor sequel to the poor The Bean Movie.

Remember HBO is Home Box Office. It's primarily a movie channel, which produces some of it's own content.

Perhaps I got a bad night. What's on today? According to the online schedule, tonight we have Ocean's Thirteen, followed by a drama Big Love, followed by Flight of the Conchords. Tomorrow we have Real Time with Bill Mather, Eastbound and Down 05, and more Flight of the Conchords. On Tuesday we have Nim's Island, and then Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. Wednesday seems to be devoted Big Love (3 episodes in a night), Thursday has Juno and a Will Ferrell show, Friday has Jumper, a plug for Monsters Vs. Aliens, and more Bill Mather, and on Saturday we get 2 movies - What Happens in Vegas, and Knocked Up.

Overall it's about 60% movies, 20% drama, and about 20% other stuff, including Flight of the Conchords. Ages ago I wondered why HBO didn't allow people from the UK to subscribe to their service - this would be very easy to do - but they won't because they only own the US rights to the films.

Now let's move onto the programmes. Yes, some are excellent. Yes, you've got The Wire, The Sopranos, Sex & The City, and Deadwood, but you've also got Real Sex, G String Divas (pictured), Cathouse - the Series, and Boxing After Dark. They've produced some brilliant shows, but also some terrible shows.

HBO succeeds because they are in America, and have a potential subscriber base of 300m. Just as the US is a big enough market to sustain putting TV show characters into successful films (Waynes World for example), a model that cannot work in other countries, they can also offer a premium content channel and get enough money to make some excellent, challenging drama and comedy. That does not mean that we can do this in the UK.

So please - let's not think of HBO as something that British TV should or could aspire to. If you're a viewer, subscribe to something like LoveFilm instead - it'll be better value. Personally I value BBC Four far more than I would HBO.


simon said...

Surely the high regard that people have for HBO isn't based on them having the perfect business model, so much as the fact they are able to produce TV series of such high quality and relatively consistently, Sopranos, The Wire etc. It's this hit rate that is the envy of so many other broadcasters.

Dan said...

No, I agree that they have a very good record, but we really only see the best of what they do.

My point is that they are a good production house, but not a perfect one, and a pretty lousy channel. Listen to anyone on British TV talking about HBO though and you'd think it was the TV equivalent of the Italian Renaissance

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