[Scene 2: “A Hit Is a Hit,” The Sopranos, season one]
HESH: Music is music. Talent is talent. There’s one constant to the music business: A hit is a hit. And this, my friend, is not a hit.
HESH: Christ, for reasons we couldn’t comprehend or codify. Pathetic schlepper!
“You don’t have to be a hack!”
When it comes to creating hits, there’s TV — and then there’s HBO. The difference is that the last thing HBO programmers think about is making a hit. At the networks, it’s the first thing (and, some might argue, the only thing).
The purpose of broadcast television is to keep you in your seat so that you watch the commercials. Networks make money by delivering as many of the right eyeballs as possible to the right time slot. That structural reality translates into an obsession with measuring those eyeballs (most network execs dial into dedicated rating lines at 6 every morning). It also produces an accumulation of rules and conventions about what kinds of shows work best to grab those eyeballs and how those shows should be made.
“The name of the game is, Whatever gets the largest number of people to watch,” says Alan Ball, a self-described refugee from the network TV “gulag” and creator of the HBO series Six Feet Under. “What is that? It’s a car wreck! It’s Fear Factor. It’s getting Playboy playmates to eat sheep’s eyeballs. They’re proud of that! ‘Look at the numbers we got! Supermodels puked on each other and people tuned in!’ ” For a programmer facing extreme economic and performance pressures, the safest decision is to go with something that is exactly like what’s successful now. As a result, television is polluted with imitation. Today, networks are producing derivatives of their own reality shows, such as NBC’s Dog Eat Dog. Yesterday, it was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire clones. And there are always the ubiquitous cop/lawyer/doctor dramas and their spin-offs. Of course, the networks do very good business with these shows. What they don’t do, however, is produce very good shows. And the reason has everything to do with the way the networks treat — or mistreat — the creative talent that is actually responsible for inventing the programs in the first place.
Alan Ball, whose television-writing career was mired in the frustration of writing and producing three network sitcoms (Grace Under Fire, Cybill, Oh Grow Up) before he won an Oscar for his American Beauty screenplay, is particularly eloquent on the subject of the central ritual of series television: the notes meeting, where work in progress is discussed. “There always seem to be twice as many people as needed at every meeting,” Ball says. “The networks have so many people who have to justify their jobs that they sit in on meetings, trying to come up with some kind of accepted feedback. They use all of these recycled buzzwords they learned in some storytelling seminar that I don’t even understand: ‘We need a third-act reversal here’ or ‘Let’s telescope the action here.’ “
Almost across the board, the “notes” are a set of commercial decisions masquerading as narrative priorities: “Be nice” (the networks’ internal moral police force, Standards & Practices, has such a grip on the writing process that writers learn to load up a script with extra “bitch”es and “ball”s that they can trade in for another “asshole”); “Resolve the A story with a neat emotional payoff, so that viewers can go to bed happy”; “Spell it out”; and “Dumb it down.”
In contrast, HBO is in the business of selling itself. Attracting subscribers to pay for and keep the service is less about ratings and more about developing a mix of offerings that individually resonate with a certain segment of the audience and that collectively attract the largest number of paying customers. HBO doesn’t make money off of any individual show; it makes money by increasing the value of the total network. HBO wins by increasing range and dialing up quality. “If we can come up with a whole plate of programs — some of which have very narrow appeal — at the end of the day, we’ll have a bigger subscriber base,” says Bewkes. “We want to deliver a real set of choices and a real range of sensibilities. At the same time, even if a subscriber isn’t interested in a particular documentary about the Teamsters, but he hears it’s good, he’ll feel better about his HBO. So it’s about excellence and range.”
But there’s another reason why television writers and producers describe the experience of working with HBO as “liberating.” It comes back to Albrecht and his stellar team of programming talent. Albrecht had a singular trajectory to network executive — from failed stand-up comedian, to manager/owner of the Improv on both coasts, to a stint as an agent at ICM (where he signed such talents as Billy Crystal, Jim Carrey, and Whoopi Goldberg), to HBO executive in 1985. The journey has made Albrecht a unique combination of deal-making animal (as an agent, he learned, “You need to go in and make something happen every day. If you don’t make a deal, you’ve had a bad day”) and philosopher of the human condition. “I believe that great writing and great filmmaking come from the unconscious,” he says. “That’s why people see things in The Sopranos that we never even thought of when we were creating it. We’re all connected in our struggle to find the meaning in our lives, which is why people connect with the dilemmas of a brutal mob boss. The fact that we talk about this stuff at work is fun and exciting. It helps expand the work and change the level of the conversation. Sometimes we look around the room and say, ‘You can bet they’re not having this conversation at NBC!’ “
Albrecht’s intellectual curiosity and ear for compellingly human stories are mirrored in the extraordinary talents that make up the original-programming team: senior vice president Carolyn Strauss, an HBO lifer who has supervised the development and production of programming as diverse as The Chris Rock Show and Six Feet Under; veteran Hollywood film producer Colin Callender, who, as president of HBO Films, has developed a stable of feature films that are as good as or better than any in theatrical release; and Anne Thomopolous, who oversees miniseries programming and who honchoed the Band of Brothers production.
Each of the team members has spent at least a decade, some almost two, at HBO. They’ve forged their identity in the margins of television production as being almost defiantly different. Even as their accomplishments have exploded into the mainstream, they remain vigilant about maintaining fresh eyes and freedom from convention. “It’s interesting that people always fixate on the content freedoms at HBO as a kind of unfair advantage,” says Strauss. “But the freedoms that are really important aren’t the freedom to swear, or to be naked, or to blow somebody’s head off. They’re about expressing a distinct point of view and allowing the creator’s voice to come through in as unencumbered a way as possible.”
It turns out that the great talent of the members of the original-programming team is their ability to work with creative talent. First, they respect and trust the writer-producers they choose to work with. “They say, ‘We want your voice. We want your vision. We want the story that you see.’ And they mean it,” says Alan Ball. “That might seem obvious, but at the networks, every decision is second-guessed by every single executive. At HBO, they leave you alone for the most part and trust your instincts.”
When the team does offer feedback, it’s usually about one thing: helping the writer inhabit his own skin boldly. When Ball submitted his script for the Six Feet Under pilot to Strauss, her response was, “It’s a little safe. I’d love to see the whole thing be a little more fucked up.” She was telling Ball, she says, that “the characters need to be as complicated as people are in real life. Their problems aren’t easily resolved. And there needs to be a level of reality and emotional truth that expresses the logic of the show — which is really about a family dealing with the very real disconnects born of a lifetime of not communicating with one another and a bunch of adult children trying to become adult adults.”
Along with the story points, Ball heard another message: “She was telling me that I don’t actually have to be a bad writer here! After five years of working on a network show where you always had to put the subtext in someone’s mouth — ‘Gee Dad, I guess I’m mad at you because you did X when I was 12’ — you could just let the subtext be the subtext and let the characters talk like real people. You don’t have to be a hack!”
It’s that kind of luxury that has talented writers, directors, actors, and producers lining up to work with HBO. Countless Hollywood stars have petitioned Ball to make a guest appearance on Six Feet Under. Tom Hanks has signed up for a third project with HBO (after executive-producing From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers, with Steven Spielberg). Callender is currently overseeing production on several star-studded films, including a New York production of the Tony-winning Angels in America, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson.
Aware that there’s a “limited supply of supremely talented people who can create successful television” and that most of them “have a better chance of getting rich and famous elsewhere,” Albrecht is dedicated to making the experience worthwhile to every HBO partner. “If you’re interested in the work, there are very few other places in the broadcast business where you can call your own shots as a creator,” he says. “We’re there as guides and to lift the limits, but basically what we want is for people to take their guts out and put it on film every week in a series or in one of our movies.”
[Scene 3: “In the Game,” Six Feet Under, season two]
NATE: Chinese checkers. Always hated that game.
NATHANIEL SR.: That’s because you’ve never played it for money. Nate, why don’t you meet a couple of friends of mine? Uh, this [indicates slickly-dressed middle-aged man], well, this is the man. Death. The Grim Reaper.
NATE: Uh, no thanks.
WOMAN: [fleshy black woman dressed as a television psychic] Good for you, baby. That stuff is nasty!
NATHANIEL SR.: And, uh, this, well, this is —
DEATH: My partner.
LIFE: Oooh! That sounds so professional! I love it!
NATE: [incredulous] Shut up!
LIFE: Oh, yeah. It’s a whole yin-yang thing!
NATE: You telling me you two are in business together?
LIFE: [laughing] Honey, me and him are in all kinds of shit together!
DEATH: Let’s just say it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.
LIFE: [to NATE] It’s your turn.
NATE: Uh, shouldn’t I wait for you to start a new game?
LIFE: This game ain’t never gonna end.
DEATH:You’re either in the game, or you’re out.
NATHANIEL SR.: On or off the bus, if you’d prefer.
NATE: All right, I’m in. [sits down]
NATHANIEL SR.: You need to put some in the kitty, son.
NATE: What are you betting?
NATE: All right. I’ll bet everything. Whatever.
“The biggest hurdle to our success is our own success.”
Colin Callender woke up on the morning of the 2001 Emmy nominations to learn that HBO had earned a whopping 94 (in contrast to NBC’s 76, ABC’s 63, and CBS’s 46). He immediately called Chris Albrecht. “We both said simultaneously, ‘What the hell do we do next year?’ Our first thought wasn’t, ‘This is great. We did it!’ It was, ‘How the hell do we top this?’ ” says Callender. “I think that, for better or worse, we’re all genetically programmed to keep pushing ourselves.”
The question of “what’s next” has acquired a new level of urgency for HBO’s original-programming unit. There is an end in sight for both Sex and the City and The Sopranos. The expectations are so high and the winning streak so pronounced that the vultures are waiting for a flop. The reviews for The Wire, the series launched this summer, reflect that reality, observes Albrecht. “They say it’s a great show, that it gets better every week, but it’s never going to equal those other shows,” he says. “What that tells me is that you can’t have a business based just on things that are unbelievably extraordinary. You also have to base the business on things that are very, very good. And if you focus on that, your chances of getting something excellent are that much better.”
The good news is that HBO’s original-programming strategy is working. The bad news is that it’s working so well, it keeps changing the game. “Chris bears the brunt of that pressure on his shoulders,” says Bewkes. “Because everything we’re doing is on a TV screen — it’s highly visible and highly copyable. Everything that we’ve tried has worked better than we ever would have imagined. So we have to keep setting the bar higher for our next act.”
Nothing demonstrated that reality more than the unprecedented phone calls that Albrecht received earlier this year — from network programming execs desperate to learn where HBO had scheduled The Sopranos‘ fourth season. “We’re playing a much broader game, much more actively,” says Albrecht. “That means that we’re going to have to be even more aggressive and take even bigger risks than we took before. We’re very aware that the biggest hurdle to our success is our own success.” The higher the stakes, the more gut-led leaps Albrecht’s team has to take to continue to make an impact with its programming. Most recently, Albrecht made the unconventional move of ordering three series for the fall season from three pilots, including the dramas Baseball Wives and Carnivale.
He’s also taking a page from the network book in amping up the value of his franchise with “HBO Sunday Nights,” featuring a powerhouse lineup of original series that regularly draw huge ratings. It’s the most visible and lauded lineup of appointment TV since NBC’s “Must-See TV.” Keenly aware of the fate of that once-golden programming concept, Albrecht is intent on “reoccupying territory that others have abdicated in order to create television worth paying for at a time when people are increasingly dissatisfied with the television that they’re getting for free.” Asked to describe that territory, Albrecht gives a typically uncompromising response: “The best: a vast but very specific target that we’re always striving to hit.”
Sidebar: HBO’s Production Values
Television is still a vast wasteland — which is why it’s almost impossible to overstate how hard it is to produce robustly entertaining, mentally engaging programming on a consistent basis. When it comes to developing good TV, Chris Albrecht and his team of original programmers at HBO have the best record in the business — while still doing a very good business. At the same time, they are the first to insist that there is no formula for sustainable innovation. What they do share is a set of driving instincts and ruling values that go a long way toward increasing the odds of success.
The best way to pick a winner is to pick the best person. As the Hollywood saying goes, “It’s show business — not show art.” At HBO, that means that Albrecht not only looks for creative geniuses who can push the envelope — he also picks people who can deliver reliably. Sopranos creator David Chase delivered an extraordinary, groundbreaking pilot. It didn’t test very well, but Albrecht and then – HBO chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes thought that it was good. More important, they thought that Chase could make 40 more episodes that were just as good, develop characters, and operate with the kind of autonomy that produces original work.
There’s only one way to go: all the way. Once you set out to do something original — and pick someone who you think can do it — you have to go all the way if you want to get anywhere. “You can’t jump off a cliff halfway,” says Bewkes. “You have to remind yourself that you’re engaged in an unknown adventure, and that involves risk. The most important thing to bring to that journey is commitment and confidence.” That’s what Bewkes and Albrecht displayed when they signed off on the $120 million Band of Brothers miniseries — and then never stinted in producing the most detailed, authentic representation of the historical events. When the 10 episodes came in at wildly varying lengths — a programmer’s nightmare — Albrecht signed off on them because it was the right thing for the project.
Substitute internal logic for conventional wisdom. Even the most creative talents get boxed in by habits and convention. The best way to avoid the trap is to articulate a distinct, defining point of view — and then make every decision based on that idea, rather than on habit or custom. Six Feet Under is about life (and relationships) in the presence of death. The show works because everything from character development to the music adheres to the emotional logic and messy reality of that idea.
Don’t go hunting for hits out there. Hone your instincts in here. Raise the level of conversation inside the organization so that you recognize winning ideas and connect with the right collaborators when they come along. Albrecht and his team spend a lot of time talking about the meaning of life, the ideas animating the culture, and their own oddball interests. The idea for Six Feet Under originated with Carolyn Strauss after she read Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death. She took her notion to writer Alan Ball, who ran with it.
Rethink your definition of victory. HBO’s original programmers admit that they generally “have no idea” if a new show will work. They rely on their gut, their particular point of view about what’s good in picking projects, and their nerve in sticking with them — even when there are no objective signs of success. Albrecht is undeterred by the generally harsh reviews and tepid reception for the series The Mind of the Married Man. He believes in the point of view and in patiently allowing it to grow and find its feet. “Ultimately, it’s looking at a show and saying, ‘We’re proud of it,’ ” says Albrecht. “That’s the most important thing. That it accomplished what we set out to do or more. The cumulative result for the brand is a sense of excellence.”
Polly LaBarre (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior editor based in New York. Visit HBO on the Web (www.hbo.com).