Can Anyone Keep Up With HBO?

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Over the last decade, HBO has become nothing less than television royalty. With incredibly popular shows like Sex and the City, The Sopranos, The Wire and Boardwalk Empire on its CV, the broadcaster has almost convinced us that its tagline (‘It’s Not TV. It’s HBO’) might just be true. Either way, Americans are clearly willing to pay extra for the service.

Home Box Office rose to prominence in the late nineties and hasn’t really looked back since. It’s able to feature such ground-breaking, big-budget series because they charge an additional fee, separate from the basic American cable subscription, which allows them to act independently of advertisers. Without this restriction they can showcase the violence, nudity and bad language that make their programming stand out and the channel’s popularity, syndication fees and income from DVD sales mean hefty budgets and a highly-polished Holywood-quality feel to shows such as Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. Furthermore, this lack of reliance means it can take chances with shows that might appeal to a smaller audience.

Financially, it is almost impossible for the basic cable networks to compete. Critical darling AMC (which brings you the likes of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead) made about $500 million in 2010, while FX (Sons of Anarchy, Nip/Tuck and Justified) brought in $936 million. Certainly not chump change, but compared to the near $4 billion that HBO made last year, it’s clear that even the most critically popular basic channels cannot provide budgets anywhere near the ones that HBO shows enjoy.

But although Home Box Office has clearly dominated the American small-screen, lately some of basic cable’s best shows seem to be on par with the premium channel’s classics. It begs the question: Are the basic cable channels catching up with the gold standard? Nobody is poised to dethrone the king just yet, but lately HBO has reason for concern.

Ratings wise, basic cable channels clearly have the upper-hand. Because it costs an extra $15 a month, many Americans are content to skip the premium service and as such shows on cheaper packages are more popular. Less than 30 million subscribe to HBO, small potatoes compared to the near 60% (180,000,000 people) of the country that have basic cable. This season, the second series premiere of The Walking Dead received a record breaking audience, with over 7 million viewers. Sons of Anarchy, currently in its fourth series, gets about 4 million viewers a week while the second season of Boardwalk opened to less than 3 million over on HBO. If these channels can imitate the quality of premium cable, they command a much more effective network for it to be seen.

HBO has been hands down the most critically acclaimed channel in American television history, but its competitors are doing their best to change that. With budgets that resemble Hollywood epics (Boardwalk Empire’s 2010 pilot cost upwards of $20 million) the premium channel can attract big name actors, directors and writers, while also offering them creative freedom and unlimited resources. As such its shows have consistently swept the Emmy awards and this year they received over 100 nominations.

Increasingly however, non-premium channels focused on critical success such as AMC and FX are getting more recognition than ever. For the past four years AMC has received the most nominations of any basic cable channel, garnering 29 in 2011 even without staple Breaking Bad eligible due to scheduling and FX consistently receives many outstanding actor nominations for shows that have featured stars like Timothy Oliphant, Glenn Close and Michael Chiklis. HBO still dominates award season, but basic cable is beginning to compete despite its budgetary restraints.

“Mad Men came in under the radar,” said former Sopranos executive producer Terence Winter, in the run-up to this year’s Emmys. “It was on a network no one had ever heard of, aside from movies.” As such, in the same way that HBO sprung a real surprise on everyone at the tail-end of the nineties, AMC are planning to repay the trick over a decade later.

Though the gap between premium cable’s HBO and basic cable programs such as FX and AMC remains wide, it is beginning to narrow. With a wider audience in the States and a new focus on movie-quality storytelling, HBO no longer remains the only source for epic series.

Though the basic channels still can’t afford to put nearly as much money into their shows, some are willing to spend more on quality in hopes that critical success will set them apart and as American advertising restrictions lighten, basic shows are able to get away with more violence and naughty language every season. With the popularity of online viewing increasing, HBO will continue to have the upper hand (thanks to their service HBO Go) but as time goes on hopefully all television will begin to resemble the premium programming.