September 25, 2004

HBO: The Tough Act TV Tries to Follow

By Bernard Weinraubs

Can HBO keep soaring?

Despite this cable channel's extraordinary dominance at the Emmy Awards on Sunday night, HBO executives insist that the best is yet to come. Rival television executives, perhaps thinking wishfully, say they are not so sure.

They note that HBO's most prestigious and popular drama series, "The Sopranos," will not be eligible for Emmys next year because it will not be shown again until 2006. HBO's most popular comedy series, "Sex and the City," has completed its run. And other cable channels, notably Showtime, have begun to play on the same creative turf as HBO.But Chris Albrecht, HBO's chairman and chief executive, said he was confident that the channel would maintain its leadership. "Everyone is always saying, 'What next?' " Mr. Albrecht said in an interview. "We've been answering that 'what next?' question for a long time."

On Sunday HBO won 32 Emmys, far more than any other nominee, and almost double the number it won last year. "Angels in America," the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Tony Kushner, which HBO turned into a two-part mini-series, won 11 Emmys, breaking the mini-series record (nine) set by ABC's "Roots" in 1977. At the same time, after consistently losing to NBC's "West Wing," "The Sopranos" finally won as best drama series.

Among the HBO series returning this season are the acclaimed dramas "The Wire" and "Six Feet Under," as well as "Deadwood" and "Carnivale," which have had mixed receptions. Its comedies include "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage." None of these shows have yet gained the audiences of "The Sopranos" or "Sex and the City."

The new HBO series include "Big Love," about a polygamist with three wives, and "Rome," about that city's ancient past. Forthcoming films include "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," with Geoffrey Rush and Charlize Theron, and "Empire Falls," based on Richard Russo's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel. HBO is also developing a comedy series starring Lisa Kudrow, formerly of NBC's "Friends."

Mr. Albrecht said he believed that HBO's dominance was partly explained by its ability to reach deep into the creative community. Top filmmakers and actors not often involved in television, like Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, Tom Hanks, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep, have worked on HBO projects.

Television executives _ - including Robert Greenblatt, president of entertainment at Showtime; John Landgraf, president of entertainment at FX; and Doug Herzog, president of Comedy Central - said HBO's impact derived largely from doing what Mr. Landgraf called "highly idiosyncratic, original and character-driven shows."

As a result of HBO, television's creative landscape has changed, especially in the cable arena, but also in the networks.

"One could make the claim that 'Arrested Development' is more of an HBO show than a network show," Mr. Herzog said, referring to the Fox comedy about a bizarre family, which won this year's Emmy for outstanding comedy series. "On our show 'The Daily Show,' HBO helped kick the door down on that one for us. And F/X shows like 'Nip/Tuck' and 'The Shield' and 'Rescue Me,' they kind of stole the HBO playbook a little bit, too."

Mr. Landgraf said that the broadcast networks had generally become "creatively conservative, creating a kind of orthodoxy about having franchise-driven shows that are more story driven than character driven."

But HBO "became the premier stop for talented writers and directors for quality television," he said, adding, "We and several others want to create a similar haven for real quality."

FX's season pilots include "Starved," described by the network's executives as a dark comedy about eating disorders, and "Home Front," a series about American soldiers in Iraq and their families by Steven Bochco, the producer of "NYPD Blue" and "L.A. Law," and Chris Gerolmo, the writer of the 1988 film "Mississippi Burning."

The USA Network's "Monk" has already won an Emmy for its star, Tony Shaloub, playing a neatness-obsessed crime investigator.

The HBO effect is also evident in a new Comedy Central series, "Wanda Does It," starting in October. In the vein of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," it follows the comedian Wanda Sykes through various travails. Next month Comedy Central is also showing the premiere of an "animated reality series" called "Drawn Together," a spoof of MTV's "Real World."

Showtime is now seeking to reinvent itself. Formerly the channel sought to appeal to specific groups, like ethnic audiences and gay audiences, and at the same time offered lower-budget television films.

Mr. Greenblatt of Showtime, a former network executive and television producer, insisted in an interview that he was not seeking to compete with HBO. "They have been the home of great shows," he said. "I'm just trying to upgrade the quality of our shows and get some real attention." Mr. Greenblatt, coincidentally, is one of the original producers of HBO's "Six Feet Under."

Although Showtime has some series, like "Queer as Folk" and "The L Word," and has produced many movies, it has never played in the same creative league as HBO. Mr. Greenblatt's mandate is to do so.

"I think we can be a little scrappy," he said. "I'm not out to compete with HBO. I couldn't. They lead the pack. I aspire to what they do."

One high-profile Showtime film - certainly in the HBO tradition - is "Our Fathers," an adaptation of David France's book about the Roman Catholic Church and the pedophilia scandal in Boston. Starring Ted Danson, Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy, it is to be shown in May.

Another Showtime film, "Reefer Madness," a musical based on the offbeat Off Broadway show starring Neve Campbell and Alan Cumming, will be shown in February.

Showtime is also banking heavily on a costly new series, "Huff," starring Hank Azaria as a psychiatrist who is forced to re-evaluate his life after the suicide of a patient. The series, whose cast includes Blythe Danner and Oliver Platt, starts on Nov. 7.

Another Showtime series, "Fat Actress," starting March 6, stars Kirstie Alley as a faintly fictionalized version of herself.

"I'm an outed fat girl," Ms. Alley said over the phone. "All the pressure is off. I told Showtime I wanted to write about the state of mind of women - if it's not fat, it's age. Showtime said yes. I have immense creative control. I've never experienced this kind of freedom."

Mr. Greenblatt said that the "layers" of broadcast executives at networks made it sometimes impossible to create interesting shows. "At the last minute, someone comes into the process and pulls the rug out from the executives who've been nurturing and developing the show," he said. "That doesn't happen at HBO. It doesn't happen at Showtime. That's the beauty of those places. They like the show, they buy it, they make it, they put it on."




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