No one can deny the way that HBO has revolutionized television since it first started in 1972. Shows like The Wire and The Sopranos challenged all of Hollywood to aim higher than it ever had before, producing dramas that rival many movies. In many ways, it has single-handedly created a culture of well-written, highly-produced TV that constantly pushes boundaries. This in turn pushed out toward AMC with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and then into primetime network television. With all that being so, it’s that much more impressive when you realize that HBO has officially entered its golden age.
First, it’s worth it to take a second to reflect on the highlights of HBO’s current programming lineup: Game of Thrones, Veep, Silicon Valley, Girls, and True Detective. With those five shows alone, you’d be hard-pressed to find another network that can measure up against that right now. We have Game of Thrones, a politically charged fantasy epic that’s one of the most-watched shows in the world. Behind that, True Detective made itself into a cult favorite after one season, Girls vaulted Lena Dunham onto the national scene, and Silicon Valley and Veep fill the much-needed 30-minute-per-episode comedy spots.
That’s not to say other networks haven’t stepped up in the wake of HBO throwing down the gauntlet years ago. AMC’s Breaking Bad is widely regarded as one of (if not the) greatest shows ever made, ABC had its own bell cow in Lost, and FX stepped up it own game with The Shield, Justified, and The Americans. But boil this all down, and patient zero for high-quality dramas is HBO, plain and simple. So what’s the secret sauce, so to speak? Given that other networks have been able to emulate this strategy so well, it’s still striking that HBO has still managed to stand head and shoulders above the rest.
One thing that allows HBO more freedom than its contemporaries? Premium cable. Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, and the CW all can only include a certain level of profane language, nudity, and even highly stylized violence. Their major shows all run during the primetime hours, subjecting them to FCC regulations on all their content (be careful, kids are watching). While both AMC and FX have fewer restrictions as the next tier in paid cable service, even they have limits as to what they can legally depict on television.
HBO, on the other hand, has little to no restrictions. Watch 15 minutes (really, any 15 minutes) of Game of Thrones and odds are you’ll see at least one beheading, three topless women, and a brutal stabbing. The channel revels in its lack of boundaries, and it allows shows to ramp up the drama. Essentially, network television is fighting with one hand tied behind its back, while HBO is free to show and do whatever it pleases. All the while, other premium cable networks, like Starz and Showtime, have found varying levels of success in shows like Spartacus and Dexter, but consistency has been an issue, with the best creative minds flocking in one single direction.
The future for HBO looks bright, with its core of shows smack-dab in the middle of successful runs. Game of Thrones has at least three more good years left in it, True Detective is only just beginning, and the other big players all are well into their prime. The only question mark is whether the network’s competition will be able to step up as HBO continues to push television forward.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest
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