Archive for game of thrones

On Your Marks…Set…HBO!

Posted in American TV (General), Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , on February 22, 2016 by Tom Steward

I hate to use the word adulting – primarily because it’s not a word – but it now seems that every major TV network in America has at least one program that is mature and sophisticated in content, execution or both (except NBC, who are labouring under the delusion that a Ryan Seacrest police procedural is somehow acceptable). It may be true that the best (non-pornographic) adult programming these days comes from basic cable networks like FX (Fargo, The Americans) and AMC (Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead) but that doesn’t mean they got there first. Subscription network – and Adam Sandler movie buyer – HBO has been adulting since the late nineties, when arty prison drama Oz and revolutionary crime drama The Sopranos heralded a wave of complex, experimental and provocative television that has yet to subside. This was politically and artistically reinforced by Six Feet Under and The Wire in the naughties, but overall the network that is an alternative to itself has re-defined just about every genre of TV you can think of, from post-feminist rom-com to news satire. But is it possible that HBO is finally entering a period of arrested development, and might that actually be a good thing?

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Well, people would have liked it a lot more!

HBO now looks to re-define quality television for children, mostly by making parents pay – or wait – for it. Last year the network struck a deal with PBS to co-produce the  iconic educational television show Sesame Street so that the show would air first on the subscription-based provider and then on free-to-air TV months later. It’s perhaps the only time I can think of (maybe you can do better) that HBO has exploited an established commodity rather than making an improved version of it and it’s one of the few signature series the network has that doesn’t rely on obscenity to make audiences spend to see it. HBO has now added the football-themed Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson vehicle Ballers to its roster of original series, which seems to be playing to the Fast and Furious-watching, sports-loving element of its demographic. Even a critic’s darling like Game of Thrones which is certainly distinguished by heavy and explicit levels of sex, violence and offensive language resembles the kind of mediaevalesque fantasy stories beloved by the nerdy young and is perhaps the first time that a HBO series with a continuous narrative arc has seemed more like a children’s matinee serial than a novel.

It’s rare that a HBO series goes over its audience’s head – though we all remember the debacle of John from Cincinnati – but last year the high-profile misfire of True Detective Season Two suggested that viewers weren’t always going to lap up the most extreme, idiosyncratic television that the network could produce. Vinyl is just beginning but it’s hard to see where this Scorsese creation detailing the record industry of the seventies will go in exploring the organized criminal elements of historical American leisure that Boardwalk Empire didn’t. The network has cancelled Looking and put a time limit on Girls, which will curb its claim to have the most socially incisive, funniest and best-written comedy-dramas on TV. If it is to continue its unwritten policy of having a maximum of six seasons of every show, then we know that Game of Thrones can’t last much longer, though the saga’s literary predecessor suggests otherwise. So what is the future of HBO? Will the network start to polarise its appeal by producing television that is either infantile or avant-garde, with nothing inbetween? Perhaps the open access of HBO GO and HBO NOW is doing something irrevocable to the adult remit of the network.

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‘Finish the series, George, I have indie movies to make!’

I’m sure many have written these ‘death of HBO’ articles before, and I’m sure they were as premature then as this is now. But I’m worried about the point of HBO changing, not the quality. Game of Thrones is wonderfully compelling and I admired True Detective a great deal, but at its best HBO always gave us innovative, game-changing television that never seemed too slight or too weighty. That balance may be in jeopardy as HBO diversifies into a Netflix-style online video service, or perhaps FX and AMC have found the mean when it comes to quality television, without needing to resort to pornographic shock tactics or take too much cash out of viewers’ pockets. Last Week Tonight and Silicon Valley suggest that a change in direction is not necessarily a bad thing, and that HBO is still finding the best people and concepts in television. But for how long?

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Bad Morning Television

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, BiogTV, Internet TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2015 by Tom Steward

It was upon returning to my hotel room at 5 in the morning after seeing some of the best and oldest bluesmen in Chicago and celebrating the existence of an L-train with a trip to a 7-11 to get some cheese-filled-bread (or bread-filled-cheese) with a side dish of whatever was left on the room service tray a few doors down and being confronted with the blurry, blobby outline of Tony Danza that I came to a grave realisation. In the land of 24-hour business, late licensing, and all-night dining, there’s nothing on TV in the middle of the night. So why have two major TV events recently debuted in the early hours of the morning?

Last November the comedy short Too Many Cooks aired around 4am during the infomercial block on Adult Swim, the late night version of Cartoon Network. A parody of both the opening credits of 1980s sitcoms and the insanely dark and genre-bending possibilities of TV comedy in that decade (and before you dismiss it as exaggerated, remember that ALF was dissected by the government in the finale), Too Many Cooks became a viral video smash and was repeated each day at midnight for the next week. The perverse choice of a graveyard slot more or less guaranteed the short’s success, not only because re-run and internet re-circulation was necessary, but also because there was no competition.

Adult Swim seemed to cotton on to the fact that there’s an undiscovered country of television between the hours of 1 and 6 in the morning. I understand why they’d want to be the pioneers, but I don’t understand why there’s not a frontier-style rush to claim territory from every other producer in TV. If the entertainment market is so damn saturated, why not get a head-start by putting out your show in the vast wasteland of unused hours in the TV day? For once, having a variety of media platforms to re-play TV on is a blessing, since audiences will need and want to see your show again once they hear they’ve missed out.

It’s surprising that the networks haven’t come to these conclusions already, since they’ve had such great success by pushing their best programming later and later in the evening. The 11 o’clock talk show is an institution that has spread to virtually every channel in the schedule and their midnight sister programmes aren’t far behind. This weekend NBC celebrated 40 years of Saturday Night Live (ironically on Sunday and in primetime), a show which begins at 11.30pm and runs to 1.30 in the morning. This isn’t, as I once thought, because Americans stay out or go to bed later, but because it’s untapped resources. In Britain at this hour, they start playing movies starring Eric Roberts.

And what if you actually need to bury a show? There was surprise in early February when FXX aired a pilot for a series based on the popular Wheel of Time fantasy novels by Robert Jordan at 1.30am. Not only do the books have a huge fan-base, but with Game of Thrones still going strong, there’s a deep well of fantasy (probably with a goblin in it) that everyone in TV can draw water from. It soon became clear, however, that the air time wasn’t a stunt to get the show ahead of the competition but to keep it firmly under the radar, being the best all-round solution to legal issues facing such a project.

The television rights to the books were to revert to a new owner on February 11 (two days after airing) and so the previous owners were probably trying to get something based on the books out on TV before that happened. Author Jordan’s widow has contested the claims of the producers to the rights and they are threatening legal action. Interestingly, FXX were able to offload responsibility by treating the pilot as ‘client-supplied programming’ i.e. an infomercial. If you’ve got a show mired in legal trouble, 1.30 in the morning is clearly the place for it. The Wheel of Time pilot used the early-morning hours as a dumping ground for toxic material but it still shares similarities with Too Many Cooks’ deployment of late TV.

Both programmes traded on the idea that anyone watching at that hour can’t be sure of what they’ve seen; one for comic effect, the other for legal protection. With each one, being mistaken for a promo or infomercial actually helped. It makes financial and creative sense. Why still the hesitation?

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