Monday, April 1, 2013

If you ain't got HBO, you ain't got no TV!

Okay, so their slogan is "It's not TV, it's HBO."

The title of this post, cribbed from what someone once said  should be the slogan for Duke's mayonnaise, with an expletive deleted, would be just as fitting.

How much HBO has changed the rest of television came to me again last night, as I was watching the "Game of Thrones" season premier.

Younger readers, those who don't remember what it was like before cable, might not understand HBO's importance.

Before cable, children, we had the three network affiliates and PBS. And usually the reception on the PBS channel was horrible.

After cable, we had a couple of dozen stations at first.

But, with the exception of sports on ESPN, music videos on MTV, baseball on TBS and WGN and wrestling on TBS and USA, almost everything on cable was stuff you'd already seen on the three networks.

Most of  basic cable channels' programming was syndicated  reruns of old situation comedies and cop shows.

It was once possible to watch television 24-hours a day and see nothing by "MASH" reruns. While it might still be possible to do the same thing with the various "Law & Order" franchises, basic cable has much more programming now. Old reruns are pretty much contained on TVLand and couple of similar channels.
HBO was the catalyst for the change, showing other cable channels how rewarding original programming could be. And, in the process, upgrading the quality of television.

That wasn't the original idea. Home Box Office was supposed to be the channel that brought you major moves and sporting events, like championship fights, for a premium.

However, as cable evolved, studios and promoters realized that they could make more money by putting their product on pay-per-view than by selling it to HBO.

That left HBO with time to fill.

And boy did they fill it.

Starting with "Sex And The City" and  "The Sopranos," HBO rolled out a series of critically-acclaimed shows  and turned Sunday into "must see TV" night. (NBC had the original "must see' night on Thursday with four sitcom, most prominently "The Cosby Show" and "Cheers" leading into a blockbuster drama -- first "Hill Street Blues," then "L.A. Law" and finally "E.R." ).

Following  "The Sopranos" success came, in no particular order, "Six Feet Under," "Big Love," "Atlantic City," "True Blood" and ""Game of Thrones.'

Even the failures, "Deadwood"  -- which I liked, and which certainly holds the record for the television show with the filthiest language --  and Carnivale, which was cancelled just as I was beginning to figure out what was going on, interesting.

HBO hasn't done as well with comedies, with only "Entourage" standing out. I suppose "Curb Your Enthusiasm" could be considered a success, it's  been on a long time. But to me Larry David is like Jim Carey and Adam Sandler, I can't stand him so I change the channel as soon as I see him, So I've seen maybe  three minutes of  "Curb Your Enthusiasm" in all the years it's been on.

Once HBO had some success with original programing, other cable channels followed.

Showtime, once HBO's rival for movies and sports, became perhaps its biggest rival in original programming, with its best shows also premiering on Sunday nights from "The L Word" to "Dexter" to "Weeds."

Then, even basic cable channels began to get into the act, USA network has had a number of original shows  the best of which are probably "Burn Notice" and "Suits." FX came out with "Sons of Anarchy"  The most praised cable show of the last five years, "Mad Men," is on AMC, a channel originally intended to air old movies.

At this point, we've reached the best -- and the worst -- of all possible television worlds. While there are so many excellent shows on television right now there really isn't time to watch them all -- even with "On Demand" and DVRs -- there's also worse garbage than ever as well. Network television has fallen into a terrible rut of cop shoes, standard sitcoms and reality dreck. (To be fair, cable has its share of bad reality shows too. Bravo, for example is responsible for the whole "Real Housewives of..(fill in the blank)" genre and MTV brought us "Jersey Shore.").

One thing I'm not sure I do like is that cable has redefined a television season as 13 or 14 episodes. Network seasons used to be about 25 episodes long. So you got half a year of new shows, then a round of reruns and maybe a summer replacement show. Now, there's a pretty long wait for your favorites to come back on. You really need that "Previously on...." segment to catch back up to where you were.

"Mad Men" is scheduled to return next week, and for the life of me I can't remember what was going on when the last season ended and it usually skips a  year between seasons.

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