They're Having A Heat Wave

Did you see that "Sopranos" episode where Tony kills the rat? Brilliant. He slips away from touring colleges with his daughter to strangle a former colleague who sang to the Feds--talk about balancing work and family. Or how about the "Sex and the City" episode where the ladies are bantering about the pros and cons of, er, unconventional penetration? Hilarious. And, speaking of unspeakable acts, how about "Oz"? Whew! Let's just say you do not want to go to prison. That stuff is great TV--but why do we have to shell out 12 bucks a month to see it on HBO? It hardly seems fair. "If we put on the air the stuff that HBO runs, there would be massive protest marches in the streets," says David Hill, chairman of Fox Broadcasting. "We would be accused of ripping asunder American society with violence and sex."

Well, you've got us there. Thank heavens for cable, though. With the networks mostly rerunning the same shows that didn't rock anybody's world the first time around, "great summer television" is not a phrase you hear too often. But faced with a pay-per-view future that threatens the value of its traditional movie programming, HBO has diversified by staking out turf the networks don't dare inhabit. The result is a small but thriving stable of excellent original series--all of which can be seen in coming months. "The Sopranos" leads the pack. It's a tremendous hit by cable standards, attracting as many as 7 million viewers for a single airing. (That's more than watch any show on UPN.) Two weeks ago it snagged an unprecedented five nominations from the Television Critics Association, including Program of the Year. Last week HBO started replaying the first season on Wednesday nights, and new episodes are slated for January. And while you've got the dial in that vicinity, check out the provocative half-hour "Sex and the City," starring Sarah Jessica Parker. It's a thinking-adult's relationship comedy--"Ally McBeal" with less air and more head. Then there's the viciously candid sports-agent satire "Arli$$." And coming July 14 will be a fresh run of the stunning prison drama "Oz." "We used to think HBO were small piranhas," says former NBC head Warren Littlefield. "Now they look like full-grown sharks."

There are first-rate shows on broadcast TV, of course. But HBO has managed to combine the inherent advantages it has as a pay network with a keen creative eye to produce something of a new genre. From the late, lamented talk-show parody "The Larry Sanders Show" through "The Sopranos," HBO shows are qualitatively different from most broadcast TV. On the whole, they're smarter, edgier, better written and better acted. And, perhaps most importantly, they march boldly into places the networks fear to tread. "As I look at it, on HBO there are two kinds of projects," says programming head Chris Albrecht. "There are things that other people wouldn't do, and there are things that other people couldn't do."

It's simply impossible to imagine "Oz," for example, on broadcast TV. Its sledgehammer depiction of prison life, replete with racism and rape, is something that could never--and, frankly, should never--be blithely served up to a mass audience. "Sex and the City's" home on cable allows it similar latitude with matters of the heart and other organs. Producer Darren Star, who created "Beverly Hills, 90210" for Fox, says he took "Sex and the City" for a look at ABC, but ultimately decided he'd be more at home at HBO. "I wanted to do an R-rated show about sexual relationships that had no kind of moralizing or censorship," he says. "I think you can't get to a comic truth about sex on TV because you can't get to any kind of reality."

HBO's ability to deal candidly with sex and violence gives it an edge, but it's not its only advantage. The pay service doesn't have to fill a vast schedule with original comedies and dramas. It can pick and choose, adding a good new program if it comes along, airing Schwarzenegger flicks if it doesn't. But perhaps the greatest freedom HBO enjoys is that it's largely spared from ratings worries. An HBO show need not have broad appeal to serve the network's ends. "Sex and the City" doesn't post huge ratings, but it does appeal heavily to female viewers, who make up 40 percent of HBO's roughly 25 million subscribers. "We're saying, 'Let's please the disparate groups of our subscriber base enough times each month that they re-up and tell their friends'," says Albrecht. The approach seems to work: HBO subscriptions have been on the increase for years. But broadcasters need more eyeballs. "Outside of 'The Sopranos,' their original programming is a joke," grouses a Big Three executive. "They just don't get any numbers."

"The Sopranos," though, is an example of something other networks could have done, but wouldn't. Creator David Chase offered the show around before he landed at HBO. "We got together and pitched it to Fox," he says. "They bought it--a script and six episodes. But after they read the script, they had too much 'respect' to discuss it further." He continued to make the rounds, garnering lots more "respect," but no deals. Tony Soprano is a murderous, thieving crook--the kind of lead character that networks consider poison. When "Oz" producer Tom Fontana pitched the networks on a prison drama, "they basically chased me out with a broom," he says. "The refrain I kept hearing was, 'Where are the victories? Where are the heroes?' When Chris Albrecht said to me, 'I don't care if any of the characters are likable, as long as they're interesting,' that was like seeing God."

But recognizing a good idea and actually seeing it through without watering it down are two different things. "When HBO says to you, 'OK, let's make it,' you f---ing make that show. You don't make anybody else's show," says Fontana. "They still manage to give you notes and have opinions, but you never feel compromised." Compromise for an HBO producer comes financially, given the dubious syndication possibilities for an uncensored, lower-rated show. "You accept a limited upside when you make a show for HBO," says Brad Grey, executive producer of "The Sopranos." "But you pay to get to do what you believe in." And, all things considered, we'll pay to watch.

ONE HOT SEASON The Sopranos
Old-school mobster with family and career issues. Status: First season in reruns.

Oz
Prison drama from 'Homicide' producers. Status: New eight-episode run starts July 14.

Arli$$
Cameo-rich sports-agent satire. Status: New season now airing Sundays at 9:30 p.m. EDT.

Sex and the City
Full-frontal adult comedy. Status: New season on Sundays at 9 p.m. EDT.

They're Having A Heat Wave | News