Why does HBO get treated differently than any other network – broadcast or cable?

HBO makes good TV. Not gonna debate that. They take lots of risks and put on lots of programming no other network is bold enough to. But they are not immune, like any network, to making less than stellar television. No one is perfect. But the way many (not all) in the critical community blindly acts as if they don’t make a misstep, honestly annoys me. It’s not just critics. The Emmys have regularly given nominations to less than stellar HBO shows over other more deserving shows. Off the top of my head, the 5th season of Entourage was nominated over the sublime Pushing Daisies.  I also maintain if Pushing Daisies was on HBO, it would have been nominated. (On a similar note, Hung was greeted with pretty good to very good reviews when it premiered. I believe if that show was on any other network it would have been universally panned, but I digress).

I will even acknowledge that a “weaker” HBO show has wonderful production values and it’s extremely rare for them to make a bad show.  In fairness to broadcast, though,  HBO has one night of new programming to schedule all year (not 7) and their shows have at max, 13 episode seasons, and they don’t have to worry about getting fined by the FCC for nudity or language.

With most new TV shows it takes a good chunk of episodes to “find” your series. Most network shows usually get graded on their pilot. If a pilot sucks, it is deemed as such in the media. It’s rare (but not unprecedented) for a show that corrects itself to be revisited in the press. HBO in many cases has such a lead time that they can sometimes send a half a season or full season out to critics before a premiere. What usually happens, in my humble opinion, is the weaker HBO shows get graded on a curve. Critics many times will say “the first 5 eps are sluggish, but it gets really good by episode 6” . Well I could make the argument that that’s true of many non HBO shows, but they don’t get reviewed the same way.

This past fall, Boardwalk Empire was greeted with what I would call massive overpraisal. It was a good show but not the masterpiece that certain critics would have you believe it was. To put it in simpler terms, it’s no Mad Men Season 4. Frankly it’s not even Terriers. Yes they spent a fortune on the “Boardwalk” and yes it looks impressive. But on Sundays in the Fall, I was watching Mad Men, Dexter, Luther, Rubicon, and Boardwalk Empire was the show that felt like homework to me. It was the hour-long show that felt like 2 hours. I realize that’s just my opinion, but I know there are others that felt the same way.

The latest example is the critical love thrown at Game Of Thrones. I know these books are held in high esteem for many, including many critics, and I understand why many were anxiously awaiting the TV show. Admittedly, this kind of show is not my usual cup of tea, but I watched the pilot and I liked it more than I thought I would and from what I hear, it only gets better from here.  So I’m not saying this show was overpraised. It was mostly lauded, but it’s interesting to me that one critic actually wrote a take down on two reviewers that didn’t like it. He had specific reasons for criticizing their reviews and laid them out clearly and I’m not saying he’s even wrong, but I can’t remember the last time I have seen that happen.

What prompted this post was the way the media is reporting the fact that HBO is saying the ratings for GOT will be delivered on Tuesday. One of the snarkier ratings websites, TVBYTHENUMBERS.com, in their post announcing the ratings delay, issued this statement “Given the amount spent on the series (not to mention the marketing), it’s hard to blame HBO for wanting to paint the premiere numbers in the best possible light”. Is this the same website that has a cloud of doom and scorn atop practically every post? I get it. They want hits and those kinds of headers provoke lots of reader comment and hits from worried fans. But in this case, I can’t help to wonder why everyone is ready to give HBO the benefit of the doubt they won’t to anyone else.

In fairness to HBO, they don’t usually release ratings til Tuesday even when True Blood ratings are great. So they are being consistent. But what’s different is the way the industry treats them. The snark and scorn usually reserved for everyone else is put aside for HBO. I also don’t understand why all their cumulative ratings are taken in to account and reported when other networks aren’t. Basic cable networks like USA don’t count their other viewings in ratings releases. Just this morning they issued numbers for their Burn Notice prequel that aired last night. I didn’t see the reruns included. More importantly, no one in the industry adds up their multiple viewings for the same evening or the week. When HBO has an underperforming show everyone helps them make it better by saying “well when you add up the two more viewings on Sunday and the replays the rest of the week, it’s up to 5 million”. Well yeah, I’m sure it does but no other network’s shows get reported that way. Not even other premium channels like Showtime. When was the last time you heard about Nurse Jackie’s cumulative number?

Every network issues press releases trumpeting their shows, finding ratings increases sometimes where you wouldn’t expect, in order to spin the positives. The industry, many times, scoffs and makes fun at those press releases. With HBO, sometimes it almost feels like some in the industry help them spin. I’m not saying cumulative viewings aren’t significant and I know HBO is subscriber based but they still tout good ratings when they have them. All their advertising points to a specific time, their premiere time slot, not the cumulative airings. Their billboards say Sunday 9p. Shouldn’t that time period be the one we’re the most concerned with? I maintain that if Games of Thrones was on any other network, the lack of any ratings info by now would result in lots of media types, especially the snarky ones, remarking that it probably underperformed. The current silence is reserved for HBO. By no means am I advocating for more snark. It’s actually refreshing. But it would be nice to see it spread out everywhere.

DON”T GET ME WRONG: I am not rooting for Games of Thrones or HBO to fail. Nor do I expect it to. Like I said, even as a newbie, I actually liked it more than I expected. The show ended with a great cliffhanger and I actually am looking forward to episode 2. There clearly was lots of money put into it and I expect it to grow. But every network puts lots of money into their shows and promotion and they’re not treated the same way. I guess I am just looking for consistency.

UPDATE: Almost immediately after I filed this post, I noticed that one of the best and most fair reporters in the biz, Joe Adalian at Vulture.com, posted the following story. He’s one of the rare reporters that did his own research that others seemed reticent to do (and instead wait for the HBO spin). His article, as always, is fair and while initial numbers are lower than hoped for, there is much reason to assume they will rise.


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