Breaking Down The Wire

Does HBO Influence the Networks, or Do the Networks Influence HBO?
Talking television.
Oct. 9 2006 3:41 PM

Breaking Down The Wire

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Hey, Alex.

Great to chat with you. (We should let readers know that you and I worked together 20 years ago for the Wall Street Journal, and we've kept in touch a tiny bit since then.)

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First off, I'd love to hang here with you and Steve for another week. I love talking about TV.

You asked: "So, does Simon just have all those voices in his head? Or are he and the other writers still out on the streets, devouring more material and more of the street language?"

It's more like a squirrel who has gathered his nuts. David Simon himself has joked that the tank is almost empty, in terms of the real-world material he acquired for The Corner. He still keeps in touch with many of the folks he met while working on that book, but Simon isn't hanging out on drug corners these days; he stored up those acorns a decade ago. (He doesn't hang out with homicide detectives anymore, either, but he knows how they think and how they talk.)

Donut, the boyish car thief, is based on a kid Simon used to see in West Baltimore while reporting The Corner. The real Donut (his actual nickname, I believe) sucked his thumb. He'd drive up in a stolen car, sucking his thumb, chillin'. I don't know why they didn't keep the thumb-sucking in The Wire. But the kid who plays Donut (Baltimore's own Nathan Corbett) has so much charm and personality, maybe the thumb-sucking would've gotten in the way. My point is: A thumb-sucking teenager, that's the kind of observed detail that a good storyteller puts in his back pocket. And Simon has tons of them.

As for the Hispanic immigration idea, let me clarify that I mentioned that as a fan, only a fan. I wasn't a full-time member of The Wire's writing staff. And at this moment, Simon has gathered his core writers to beat out stories for Season 5, and I'm here in California, pursuing the annual quest of getting a show of my own on the air.

I've pitched shows to HBO and Showtime, and I've pitched to the broadcast networks, so I've pondered the differences between the two. You ask what influence pay cable has had on commercial TV. I'm starting to wonder whether it's commercial TV that will ultimately influence the storytelling on cable.

The networks have tried to approximate the edgy violence and anti-heroic protagonists of The Sopranos. (As with my own NBC limited series, Kingpin, three years ago.) So far, it hasn't caught on with a mass audience. CBS just cancelled Smith, starring Ray Liotta as the leader of a gang of thieves, after only three episodes. NBC similarly failed last season with Heist. NBC will try again this season with The Black Donnellys, about the Irish mob in Hell's Kitchen. And CBS will trot out Waterfront, with Joe Pantoliano as a corrupt mayor of Providence, R.I. We'll see what happens.

Meanwhile, the breakout hit dramas of the past couple of years—House, Grey's Anatomy, Lost, Desperate Housewives—owe nothing to pay cable. And those are the shows the networks are trying to replicate. ("We want Grey's Anatomy with cops … ." "Let's do House with a lawyer … .")

The appeal of HBO, for show creators, used to be that it wasn't driven by ratings, because it wasn't selling commercial time to advertisers. It was in the business of attracting subscribers. So, by winning assloads of Emmys and inspiring reams of praise from TV critics, HBO could make viewers believe they must pony up for pay cable in order to experience the cutting edge of American storytelling.

I suspect that HBO is now becoming more ratings-driven. They want big numbers. Not the 25 million viewers of Grey's Anatomy, but at least the 10 million viewers of The Sopranos. How will that desire influence the choice of shows that HBO produces in the future? Will HBO be as reluctant to do a series about nonwhite people as CBS, ABC, and NBC are? Would HBO have bought David Simon's pitch for The Wire today?

As for the authors you mentioned, I must confess that I'm not a reader of books. Never formed the habit. I am a post-literate American, so it's even more important to me that Hollywood be in the business of telling tough stories, richly human stories, about the real world we live in.

David

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