Archive for sesame street

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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It’s Not What You Know, It’s HBO

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2015 by Tom Steward

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.

Flipping Channels

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 28, 2013 by Tom Steward

When adjusting to TV in another country foreign viewers need all the help they can get. Even something as basic as the name of the channel can provide indispensable clues to the kind of programmes likely to appear. Unfortunately after flipping through the channels on American TV I’m none the wiser. The naming of networks here seems to be ironic. All I found on The Travel Channel were programmes about the excessive intake of high-calorie foods which make Americans less able to move. When I turned over to The Learning Channel I saw wall-to-wall programming about people without formal educations. By the time I got to The History Channel I wasn’t at all surprised to find a show about the latest cars on the market. Given that the networks score hit-after-hit by commissioning against type, I’ve come up with a list of channels that might benefit from a bizarro re-brand:

 

Current Network Name: HBO (Home Box Office)

‘It’s still TV’

New Network Name: OGSD (Outdoor Gas Station DVD)

 

New Slogan: ‘It’s still TV’

 

Changes to Network: The channel ident will have to be changed. Instead of celestial white letters burning transcendently out of the white noise of a TV screen against the sound of a heavenly choir, there will be a pixelating logo of a limp hot dog on a pirated DVD menu (with only a ‘Play Movie’ option) for a 90s thriller starring Ice Cube and the sound of a trucker dumping audible in the background.

 

Marketing Strategy: Subscription free with any Slurpie.

 

Current Network Name: USA

‘Characters arrested on sight’

New Network Name: The Islamic Republic of Iran

 

New Slogan: ‘Characters Arrested on Sight’

 

Changes to Network: The network will commission a new Law & Order spin-off called ‘State Torture Victims Unit’. They will also develop a home-cooking themed reality show called ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Ahmaddinejad?’ in which the Iranian President drops by to share the evening meals of families across America.

 

Marketing Strategy: Sell original programmes to a rival network until they become hit shows on the other channel and that network starts to make its own original programming. At this time the network president will appear in public denouncing the rival network’s original programmes and demand that they cancel them. If this strategy fails the network will threaten their rival with a ratings war by putting on all-day back-to-back re-runs of Two and a Half Men.

 

 

Current Network Name: PBS (Public Broadcasting Service)

‘Funded by Hostile Takeovers’

New Network Name: The Romney Channel

 

New Slogan: ‘Funded by Hostile Takeovers’

 

Changes to Network: Bert and Ernie will need to be evicted from Sesame Street in accordance with network president Romney’s views on gay marriage. Downton Abbey will be pulled and replaced by Downtown Antimony, a historical drama about the Utah metal mining industry.

 

Marketing Strategy: Instead of telethons, funding for the network will come from Super Pacs and rather than a free tote bag, viewers will receive a visit from a Mormon minister, whether they contribute money to the network or not.

 

 

Current Network Name: The Weather Channel

‘Weather has never been less important’

New Network Name: The Air Conditioning Channel

 

New Slogan: ‘The Weather Has Never Been Less Important’

 

Changes to Network: Reporters will now do their segments to camera indoors standing in front of the draft from a dehumidifier for dramatic effect. Al Roker’s ‘look at the weather where you are’ will become a close-up of a thermostat.

 

Marketing Strategy: Are you kidding me? How the hell do you market weather anyway?

 

 

Current Network Name: Fox News

‘Distorted and Unhealthy’

New Network Name: Fox Unsubstantiated Rumours

 

New Slogan: ‘Distorted and Unhealthy’

 

Changes to Network: None.

 

Marketing Strategy: Anchors will no longer have to pretend that they don’t agree with everything Karl Rove says or concede to statistical facts like election victories. Otherwise, on message.

 

 

Current Network Name: Lifetime

‘Your death. Your purgatory’

New Network Name: All Eternity

 

New Slogan: ‘Your Death. Your Purgatory’

 

Changes to Network: To compliment the feeling of burning in hell forever original movies will run continuously on a loop without episodes of Frasier to break up the torture. Dance Moms will have a themed episode in which the students re-create the Thriller video and Abby Miller, hopefully, decomposes.

 

Marketing Strategy: Re-tool all original reality shows to include death. One Born Every Minute gains a sister programme called Make Way for Babies in which new parents have to decide on an old person to kill in order to balance the population. The Week the Women Went takes on a darker aspect as it becomes clear they’re not coming back.

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