It’s Not What You Know, It’s HBO

It’s one of the great cultural shames that people are denied access to works of art based on their income. For decades now, premium cable network HBO has been in the business of producing some of the finest television in the medium’s history and preventing large swathes of the American population from seeing them. Consumers (for that is what they are) need to be above a certain socio-economic line in order to pay HBO’s monthly subscription fee – historically between 6 and 15 dollars – along with the exorbitant cable company charges and, y’know, food and shelter, stuff like that. Of course, quality television in the US has always implicitly discriminated on socio-economic grounds by wielding cultural capital. Put very simply (and no doubt wrongly to some), cultural capital relates to the idea that what we judge as artistic or culturally worthy is determined by the social exposure that class, wealth and educational background permits, and so the elites have a collateral advantage when interpreting works of art and culture. When advertising executives in the 1980s discovered it was more profitable to target the high-spending TV viewer than the mass-audience, TV like Northern Exposure and Hill Street Blues went after educated professionals with a litany of fine art references and allusions. But whereas visiting libraries and museums would be enough to crack that code, there’s no getting around the bare economic fact that you either have the subscription money or you don’t, and if you don’t you have to actively steal culture.

The most educational show since 'Sesame Street'

The most educational show since ‘Sesame Street’

There’s no shame in that. As HBO’s own John Oliver commented, ‘A good way to know which side of the income equality gap you’re on is if you’re currently paying for HBO or stealing it’. But HBO was making great television long before fluid internet theft of television was the desirable option, and I know from experience that HBO (for obvious reasons) are more militant than most TV networks at shutting down piracy of their programmes. This is bad but it’s what HBO has been doing forever, and in the back of our minds we secretly know that the quality of the TV they produce is proportional to the number of Americans it excludes from watching. What concerns me more these days is that those without HBO are being left out of the cultural conversation. News-with-a-side-of-comedy series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is informing and engaging Americans on political issues and debates that mainstream media and government have left too intangible for the average person to unravel, whether that’s taxes, government espionage, or the system of electing judges. As such, it’s more like Sesame Street than The Daily Show. Yes, you can find out what John Oliver discovered on your own (he did!) but he makes politics accessible without compromising their labyrinthine complexity, which is rather rarely telling you what you need to know without what to think. You can pirate Last Week Tonight and even legally watch key highlights piecemeal on YouTube, but this is only the beginning.

While the LAPD will tell you they’ve been looking into accusations of murder against Robert Durst for years, it’s hard to see how The Jinx, HBO’s documentary mini-series about the real estate heir and his alleged past crimes hasn’t at least catalysed his arrest in March while the series was still airing. The series had audio of Durst seeming to confess – somewhat sensationally reserved for the season finale – and provided evidence of a handwriting match that many think was the trigger for the LAPD to make an arrest. TV investigative reporting like CNN’s The Hunt with John Walsh has always had these aims of impacting on criminal justice – and often they do – but what’s special about The Jinx (despite its inherently lurid qualities of true crime entertainment) is that it’s a documentary about a subject that has yielded the capture of a suspected killer without that being the stated aim of the programme. Durst’s confession tape was stumbled upon during the rigorous process of compiling footage and wasn’t the result of a super-cloak of crime-fighting conservatism the show had shrouded itself in. This is because HBO has to appeal but it doesn’t have to pander. The network or basic cable equivalents of The Jinx and Last Week Tonight are significantly diluted by gestures to mainstream entertainment orthodoxy – sycophantic celebrity interviews, monster-of-the-week journalism – but the former spends a series on what would be an hour on any other channel and the latter expands a 5-minute news segment into a quarter-hour dissection.

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