Sky Atlantic, HBO, and what it means for British TV

News Paul Martinovic 1 Feb 2011 - 11:29

The launch of Sky Atlantic brings the unrivalled HBO back catalogue to the UK. But is it the next big thing in television that it's being billed as?

There is a moment in an early episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David, playing himself, asks Julia Louis-Dreyfus, also playing herself, to star in his new sitcom, loosely based around "The Seinfeld Curse", the notion that none of the four stars of Seinfeld (including Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine) were able to achieve similar successes in any of their subsequent shows. "Can we do it on HBO?" Louis-Dreyfus asks him. "I want to be able to say 'fuck'!" Curb Your Enthusiasm, of course, is one of HBO's flagship comedy shows.

It's a joke that's so uncompromisingly metatextual that it would require a Wire-esque noteboard and wallchart to fully unpack and explain it to the uninitiated. But its clever mixture of the postmodern and the profane is a good distillation of the approach HBO has taken towards its original programming over the last decade, an approach that has inarguably changed the landscape of television.

It seems unlikely that the recent launch of Sky Atlantic will instigate a similar sea change in British TV, but its arrival is a hugely significant event nonetheless. If nothing else, it highlights the contrasting attitudes of the two pay TV giants towards its programming.

Originally launched in 1972 as a paid subscription service in New York that was brought to people's homes via a system of underground cabling, HBO became the first national satellite broadcaster in 1975, when it broadcast the legendary 'Thrilla in Manila' boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

Like BSkyB, HBO's early unique selling point was its exclusive broadcasts of live sporting events and first runs of blockbuster movies, which made up the entirety of the channel's early output and still features heavily today.

The birth of HBO as the cultural touchstone that it has now become for the television industry came in 1995, with the appointment of Chris Albrecht as the president of HBO Original Programming. Previously, Albrecht had been head of HBO Independent Productions, and had overseen the production of the immensely popular sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond for CBS, as well as comedy programming for the HBO network itself.

One thing that shouldn't be overlooked in the history of HBO is how consistently great its comedy output has been. Alongside dozens of great stand-up specials, HBO also produced two of the best and most influential comedy shows of the past 25 years in Mr Show With Bob And David and The Larry Sanders Show.

HBO's first dramatic hour-long programme arrived in 1997 in the form of Oz, a queasily brutal prison drama that became notorious for its scenes of violence, sexual and otherwise. The very existence of Oz demonstrated one of HBO's unique selling points, both to audiences and to programme makers.

As the network was a pay-to-subscribe service that, crucially, ran without adverts, it was exempt from the same strict indecency and obscenity guidelines that governed network television. As a result, the network could get away with showing pretty much anything, which opened up a whole range of potential storytelling opportunities that were previously off-limits. Oz was a show that it would have been literally impossible to make on any other channel, which made HBO immediately attractive to creatives. As Louis-Dreyfus memorably put it, you get to say 'fuck'!

It was also around this time that HBO adopted the ingenious marketing slogan "It's Not TV. It's HBO," which memorably summarised the quiet TV revolution being undergone at HBO in just five words, and remained the network's slogan for the next decade.

On broadcast, Oz was met with decent critical acclaim, along with Sex And The City on its debut a year later. The turning point for HBO, however, came in 1999 with the premiere of mob drama, The Sopranos.

Created by the brilliant, yet at the time unknown television writer, David Chase, The Sopranos brought a mafia story to the small screen for the first time, and in doing so introduced us to one of the greatest characters of all time in Tony Soprano.

Funny, violent, introspective, frustrating and exhilarating, the impact of The Sopranos on television was seismic. Firstly, it completely bowled over the critics, who were now faced with a television programme that merited the kind of analysis and discussion normally reserved for the best independent and arthouse cinema.

Renowned film historian, David Thomson, even went so far as to include The Sopranos in the book, Have You Seen?, as the only longform dramatic television show to make the list.

Secondly, it was eventually an enormous commercial hit, single-handedly bringing in subscribers to HBO, who wanted to see what the fuss was all about.

The most important thing about The Sopranos, however, is how uncompromising it was in its vision. Even as the show's popularity reached unprecedented high levels for a cable show, showrunner Chase refused to make The Sopranos all about the violent whackings and 'mob stuff'. As a matter of fact, Chase deliberately made the show more obtuse and weird as it went along, even hinting that he was trying to  deliberately shake off some of the more impatient and bloodthirsty sections of his audience.

Importantly, and pretty staggeringly, Chase was given complete freedom to do so. Albrecht and HBO realised, with the success of The Sopranos, that there was an untapped audience for so-called 'quality' TV, and what it paved the way for more than anything else, was writers and creative people in television being given complete artistic freedom without interference from the network. Not just because they were freed from censorship constraints, but also in the sense that they were now allowed to tell the stories they wanted to tell, at the pace they wanted to tell them, and the network would trust implicitly in their creative stewardship.

This resulted in a lot of personal, singular visions being brought to the screen by HBO in the early 2000s, as they took The Sopranos template and ran with. 

Alan Ball's blackly comic, death-obsessed drama, Six Feet Under, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' epic World War II miniseries, Band Of Brothers, Daniel Knauf's bizarre mystery-horror Carnivale, David Milch's profanely lyrical Western series, Deadwood, and David Simon's Dickensian portrait of modern Baltimore in The Wire.

All of these shows met with, at the least, great critical acclaim. The Wire, in particular, has a genuine claim to being the critical consensus pick for greatest television show of all time, with varying degrees of commercial success. The viewing figures almost didn't matter, however. HBO got the reputation as the TV station where something genuinely new and exciting was happening, and all of the best creative talent in television wanted to work there. HBO became the byword for quality in television circles.

However, in recent years, HBO's position at the top of the 'quality' TV heap has come under serious threat. Rival cable channel AMC launched its own original programming roster in 2007 with the formidable Mad Men, then followed this up with the magnificent Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.

Similarly, FX has enjoyed a creative purple patch with the hugely acclaimed final seasons of cop drama, The Shield, biker drama Sons Of Anarchy, boxing thriller, Lights Out and Elmore Leonard-inspired crime series, Justified. Long-time competitor, Showtime, is scoring hits, too, with its multi-award-winning Dexter.

The HBO effect has even filtered down into network shows, with shows such as Lost, Friday Night Lights and Fringe all adopting the high production values and dense storytelling of HBO's output. These are the shows that have caught the imagination of television critics, in particular, over the past few years, whereas HBO has struggled to replicate the impeccable form it enjoyed in the early 2000s. It's not done yet, however, having heavily invested in two huge projects in Boardwalk Empire and Game Of Thrones.

Which brings us back to Sky Atlantic. Sky are promoting Boardwalk Empire very heavily in their marketing materials and showed the 90 minute pilot no less than three times on its opening night. I've seen the entirety of Boardwalk Empire (my review archive can be found here) and make no mistake. It's an excellent TV show, and one that I would recommend watching without hesitation.

However, as a show, it probably sums up best exactly why the arrival of Sky Atlantic isn't the cause for celebration that many fans of 'quality' TV have made it out to be.

Unlike HBO's best shows, Boardwalk Empire doesn't  offer you, the viewer, anything that you haven't already seen before, which is not something you can say about The Wire, or Carnivale, or even Breaking Bad.

The storyline of a compulsively mendacious, yet charming main character is one that has been done to death in other shows, and similarly the gangster setting is one that has come to be mined ruthlessly. (The showrunner of Boardwalk Empire is a former writer for The Sopranos, and there is a significant overlap in tone and content.)

It is impeccably made and very entertaining, with insanely high production values, but there is the lingering sense that it is a show that is standing on the shoulders of giants.

This is an accusation that is often levelled at Sky. They entice viewers by buying up products that are already extremely popular (be it films, television programmes, or sport) and then sell them back to that same audience at a premium rate.

While this is maybe a slightly reductive way of looking at things, it's not very far removed from the truth at all.

However, the timing of Sky's executives is traditionally poor. The trouble with waiting to see if a show is popular before purchasing it is that you invariably end up acquiring it after its cultural tipping point and just as it is starting to begin its decline.

This was certainly the case with programmes such as 24, and it could even be argued that Friends and Lost were both past their best days when Sky got hold of them. (I'd disagree, but the viewing figures don't lie.)

While it's too early to write them off yet, it could be similarly argued that the glory days of HBO are long gone, and Sky have once again arrived too late to the party.

Sky have the money to invest the way HBO did.  Admittedly, they have the irritation of advertisers to deal with, but as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have demonstrated, advertisers in the UK have a much bigger tolerance for challenging material and less influence over a show's actual content. But Sky's dramatic output has been limp, at best, with only a couple of weak Discworld adaptations and trashy soaps like Dream Team and Mile High making any waves with viewers at all in its 25 year history (although the recent Thorne shows promise).

It's an indictment of Sky's own reluctance to gamble on creativity that the launch of a channel that exclusively comprises American imports is the most interesting and hotly anticipated thing they have done in the field of television drama for years, possibly ever.

It's easy to see why Sky bought the HBO back catalogue. It's probably the finest library of television ever produced, and if there are any HBO shows you haven't already seen, then the arrival Sky Atlantic is a very good thing. 

However, it's a sad irony that a subscription channel that built its empire on originality has now had its entire output bought, remarketed and resold to another market as the next big thing in television.

Welcome to Sky Atlantic, then. No original content, and reliant exclusively on popular, expensively acquired imports and the willingness of our American cousins to take a chance. It's not TV. But it's not HBO either.

Follow Paul Martinovic on Twitter @paulmartinovic. Click here for his archive of Boardwalk Empire reviews, or for more babble check out his blog here.

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Article updated 2 February.

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