IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

HBO is a network that does its own thing

HBO is earning kudos and Emmy nominations for its original programming.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Last week, as HBO stole everybody’s thunder with 124 Emmy nominations for programs like “The Sopranos,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Angels in America,” a pair of broadcast networks were accusing a rival of stealing their plans for unscripted series about boxing and wife swapping.

This says loads about pay-cable network HBO (which scored nearly twice as many nominations as runner-up NBC). And it speaks just as loudly about the attitude at NBC and fellow broadcast outlets as another fall season approaches.

By every indication, HBO is consumed with putting really good stuff on the air, stuff unlikely to be found anywhere else — not everywhere else, such as with Fox, currently behaving like there’s an Emmy category for Most Brazen Ripoff.

While rushing to get “The Next Great Champ” on the air before “The Contender” can premiere this fall on NBC (which had announced its boxing-competition show weeks earlier), Fox struck again: “Trading Spouses” was dropped into the schedule this week, getting the jump on ABC’s upcoming “Wife Swap” by months.

Speaking to reporters last week, Fox TV entertainment chief Gail Berman defended her network by (in effect) damning her industry.

TV is a medium of copycats, she declared: “There are two boxing shows. There are three Amy Fisher movies. There are two Diana movies. This is the way television works. There’s nothing new about it.”

Nothing new indeed. “Network see, network do” remains the rule. And any notions for bold originality can be summed up by the motto: “Be second, first.”

But in recent seasons, programmers have taken fashion knockoffs to a new extreme: They even copy themselves, rolling out new variations on old hits like “Crime Scene Investigation” and “Law & Order” (of which, respectively, a third and fourth version are coming) to make sure no idea goes unexhausted.

On the other hand, HBO so far has resisted a spinoff, “Six Feet Under: New Plots.” But in its fourth season, the original funeral-home drama keeps digging deep.

Last week HBO introduced “Entourage,” a frisky half-hour comedy from actor Mark Wahlberg about a rising young Hollywood star and his trusted hangers-on.

“The Sopranos” recently wrapped its fifth brilliant season (and picked up 20 Emmy nominations). “Sex and the City” concluded a smash six-season run (collecting 11 nominations). The new drama “Deadwood” brought a dazzling new sheen to outlaws and four-letter words in a 19th-century frontier town (and got 11 nominations).

Patience is a virtueIn the wings: season three of “The Wire,” a complex exploration of power brokering in an American city that demands you pay attention and rewards you richly for it. Not a breakout hit, “The Wire” (returning in September) has nonetheless won a devoted following, not to mention a 2003 Peabody Award.

That seems to satisfy HBO, whose patience has been demonstrated even more vividly by its decision to bring back “Carnivale,” the Dust Bowl phantasmagoria that kept its viewers pretty much bewildered last fall. Who knows? Maybe given a second season, this like-no-other drama will find a level of coherence that approaches its rapturous style.

Of course, commercial networks don’t have the luxury of patience. Or so they complain. Imagination and boldness take a back seat to the ratings chase, while these networks bow to advertisers, appease pressure groups and worry about the FCC — and do all this for a full prime-time slate.

How can they compete in the same game dominated by HBO, with its creative freedom and 27.5 million happy subscribers (the most of any premium channel, representing roughly one-fourth of the TV audience).

They have a point. But no excuse. What their numbers-crunching mind-set can’t seem to grasp is: It’s not all about numbers.

The sort of programming that nourishes a network (and thrills its audience) doesn’t come from any by-the-numbers strategy. Whether it’s “The Sopranos” on HBO, “Nip/Tuck” and “The Shield” on basic cable’s FX, or such broadcast network classics as “Survivor” and “Seinfeld,” it’s a divine accident.

Clearly, HBO knows better than anyone how to make this kind of accident happen — and keep happening.

By contrast, last week NBC boss Jeff Zucker gave reporters an insight into his programming flair.

While describing NBC’s five new fall shows as “better than we’ve had in a long time,” Zucker confessed that, despite his similar high praise for last season’s raunchy sitcom “Coupling,” he had known “we were in trouble” when he screened its first episode. Then he put it on the air. “Coupling” was an instant, embarrassing flop.

True or not, “better than we’ve had in a long time” isn’t necessarily good. So what else is new?