Basic-cable channels have encountered their share of growing pains in the world of the original scripted series, but premium programmers Home Box Office and Showtime are much further along on the development curve.
Operating in spaces where the commercial networks — both broadcast and basic — can't tread because of restraints on language, violence and sexual content, the pay TV outlets have increased their series output and profile in recent years.
HBO's mob dramedy The Sopranos
has become a TV phenomenon. Its season-four debut on Sept. 15 set entertainment viewership records for the service — some 16 months after the conclusion of its third season.
"With the boatload of Emmy awards and nominations, Six Feet Under
has joined The Sopranos
and Sex and the City
as shows that are making everyone sit up and take notice," said Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research at Lifetime Television and the co-author of The Complete Guide to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows. "HBO says, 'They're not TV.' It's a voice from the front.
"There's a glow for the industry," he said. "In the minds of consumers, they're cable. HBO is bringing more viewers to the screen. People want to be part of The Sopranos."
Showtime's series have not played as big with the Nielsens. The Viacom Inc. holding's success has come with shows that reach smaller-but-important viewing segments.
Queer as Folk, its most popular series, examines homosexual life, love and lust in Pittsburgh. Soul Food
follows the trials, tribulations and triumphs of three African-American sisters and their families in Chicago. And Resurrection Blvd.
does the same for Latinos, centering on a Los Angeles family with boxing roots.
"Showtime has yet to produce the big breakout hit, but it hasn't been for not giving a Herculean effort," said Brooks. "Showtime's series hit targets, but they're big targets.
"Showtime and especially HBO have produced high-quality programming that stretched the boundaries of TV, with others aspiring to match. That's made for better programming all around in basic cable and broadcast."
Fits and starts
But the success that HBO and Showtime have enjoyed with series has not come without its own share of fits and starts. The networks may not be confined to the rigors of broadcast's time-honored TV season schedule, but the pay channels also have constraints and dynamics to deal with in finding and forging shows.
Showtime forays like Going To California
and Leap Years
were short-lived. Similarly, Beggars and Choosers
— a series that looked inside Hollywood while simultaneously poking fun at some of the pressures and tactics faced by show sellers and networks — may have had its followers, but not enough to keep it on the air.
"Beggars and Choosers
was not a misstep," said Showtime Networks Inc. executive vice president of original programming Gary Levine. "It was well-done. A lot of those people who liked it, loved it.
"It had a loyal audience, but it didn't grow broadly enough. You need to take chances; not everything is going to work."
HBO, which preceded Showtime into the premium market — and with series programming — has not always claimed its current exalted series status.
"First & Ten, Dream On, even The Larry Sanders Show
were much more niche-oriented," said Brooks. "They were not major hits on the national level."
For her part, Carolyn Strauss, HBO's executive vice president of original programming, said the pay channel's series were not "an overnight sensation."
"It's not that Larry Sanders
wasn't a great show, but it wasn't as big as current series. There are a lot of painful memories that I won't give out for free," she laughs, before adding, "Step by step, we've learned a little more each time."
Keeping an executive team largely intact has also bolstered the network's series acumen.
"I've been here for 16 years, and a lot of people have been at this company as long as me," she said. "A lot of the right synergies we have come from that corporate environment.
"We know the creative, how to schedule and how to market. That's taken time as we learned how to work together."
One thing that doesn't work for either HBO or Showtime is the number of shows that broadcasters must produce per season.
"We're more like a boutique shop, working with seven or eight series and in smaller batches: 15 for Soul Food, 14 for Queer as Folk
and 13 for The Chris Isaak Show," said Levine. "Grinding out 22 or 26 episodes, that has to take its toll on any show runner."
Strauss concurred. "It's really hard to make 13 good episodes. I don't know how you can do 22 good shows per season. We sell our series on quality all the way."
Said Bob Greenblatt, principal of The Greenblatt-Janollari Studios, the producers of Six Feet Under: "Creatively, you can really get the juices flowing. There will be better writing, because you're not trying to stretch stories over 22 episodes. It's also much easier to attract actors, who may not want to tie up their whole year with a network-length series."
Conversely, Greenblatt said it is often much more difficult to gain financing for shorter projects.
Strauss also sees some down sides to shorter seasons.
"With 22 episodes, you have a longer burst to reach the audience," she said. "With the smaller order, you have less time to cover all the ground of a season, and work out the kinks. You're working toward season closure, almost from the outset."
Added Levine, "You build a fan base, then you ask them to be patient for a long time."
That's not necessarily a bad thing, in Brooks's view. Shorter production flights have long been common in Britain, he said, and viewers are becoming increasingly accustomed to them here on cable, as well with shows like Survivor
and American Idol.
Unlike their broadcast and basic-cable brethren, premium networks don't have to deal with the impact of commercials on several levels.
Most fundamentally, that affects how premium shows look and feel.
"We don't have the interruption in rhythm," said Strauss. "We don't have to go to breaks in the storytelling; we don't feel the influences of commercials."
Of course, without commercials there is a much bigger picture that premium networks don't have to worry about as such.
"It's certainly a different mindset," said Levine. "When I was at ABC, a writer came into my office and said, 'You guys just put the crap on between the commercials.'
"In broadcast and basic cable, you have to bow to the audience and advertisers and you know the next day how things are going — or not."
Without the Nielsen Media Research and Madison Avenue observers serving as Big Brother, premium networks can slow down the series-gestation process.
"You can let quality shows develop," said Strauss. "I wouldn't want to be in network-show creation. You put in your blood, sweat and tears into something that runs two times. Who knows if it would have turned out to be good?"
In the land of premium cable, good is a term that's far more qualitative than quantitative.
"It's not just about hitting with the right audience, or having a show that can counter someone's schedule," said Levine. "Our shows have to have certain sensibilities. Something we believe in, something that excites us. Is it interesting? Does it get critical acclaim? Does it have a loyal fan base? Does it have an audience, or a potential to build an audience?
"It's a richer, deeper criteria. That makes the decision-making process a little more complicated."
He points to The Chris Isaak Show
as an example.
"Measured by audience alone, it would have been canceled after the second episode of its first season," Levine said. "But we ordered the second season, because we had an unflinching belief in it.
"We received a little help from our sister network VH1 in terms of cross-promotion and rerunning the first season. Chris Isaak
improved significantly with viewers during its second season."
HBO recently shot a pilot for Carnival. The series, which tracks a traveling carnival during the "Dust Bowl" era of 1934, will go into production in January. The network has also commissioned a Western pilot to be shot this month, said Strauss.
Showtime, meanwhile, has shot four pilots, and is final production on each: Out of Order
examines a Hollywood screenwriting couple whose marriage is unraveling; The Ranch
looks at the lives of women working in a fictitious brothel in Las Vegas; Earthlings
explores the choices of a woman who has a gratifying first lesbian experience and, shortly thereafter, receives a marriage proposal from her boyfriend; and Dead Like Me
is a dark comedy that follows a young woman on her job in the afterlife.
Decisions as to which pilot will become a series will be made in the beginning of November, Levine said.
Wouldn't series development be a lot easier if executives could just take the right plot, story lines and characters aimed for a particular audience segments, and then mix them into a blender?
"It would, but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun," said Levine.