It's Not Just TV
How HBO revolutionized television
When I was growing up in the 1970s, the lowliest form of cultural consumption was to stay home and watch television. All other art forms, any other art forms, were fine. To have made the effort to leave the house, travel to a temple of culture and see a performance or exhibition was proof of a refined engagement with the arts. To slouch on a sofa and be in thrall to a grotesque diet of cop shows, quizzes and soap operas was to opt out of culture altogether.
Even television executives knew this. They played fast and loose with our capacity to watch rubbish by finding fresh nadirs to which to stoop. Were they having bets to goad each other? In the mid-1980s, the entire ninth series of Dallas was revealed to be a bad dream, a twist that might have hinted at Borgesian surrealism but gave every impression of having been scribbled on the back of a spent cocaine packet in a Los Angeles traffic jam.
The lowliest sub-section of the lowliest art form was US prime-time TV. As other popular culture forms, namely music and the movies, thrived and reinvented themselves, US TV gave us Dynasty, The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard, CHiPS, Magnum PI, Falcon Crest, and all the rest. The odd classy sitcom snuck through the mire. M*A*S*H* managed to negotiate a fine line between black humour and sentimentality. Taxi was worth watching for the mercurial Andy Kaufman. They were drops in the ocean. It was odd: a country that had some of the greatest novelists and journalists in the world seemed, when it came to TV drama, to resort to infantilism, treating its viewers with contempt.
How different things are today. At the beginning of the 21st century, there is nothing sharper in the cultural firmament than American television writing. You don't have to brave the multiplex or pay exorbitant theatre ticket prices to watch the most compelling drama, the most scabrous satire, the most committed actors. From the sassy 23-minute sitcom to the magisterially drawn-out series, TV as an art form has grown up. It is changing our habits, and our scale of values. The ultimate act of cultural immersion used to involve going to see a Polish mime troupe in a downtown warehouse that couldn't afford its heating bills. Today, it is to sink into a DVD box set for an evening of home-comfort transcendence.
This near-miraculous transformation is almost entirely down to one company. This year, for the 10th successive year, HBO, the pay-TV network, received more prime-time Emmy awards than any other network. HBO shows and artists challenged for 104 awards in last weekend's ceremony. They included 21 nominations for the mini-series Mildred Pierce, 18 for the prohibition-era epic Boardwalk Empire, 13 for the fantasy series Game of Thrones, and 11 for the financial meltdown movie Too Big to Fail. HBO won a total of 19 awards, the most successful network.
The company, which started life as a cable channel in 1972 – the dark days of television – by transmitting a National Hockey League game, is now one of the most culturally significant forces on the planet. The fact that it makes a handsome profit – it is estimated to have turned over $4bn for its parent Time Warner in 2010 – is almost the least interesting thing about it. Its history in pioneering new business models in an unprecedentedly fast-moving media landscape is undeniably impressive. But it is not what its 30m US subscribers (plus another 45m international subscribers to HBO and its subsidiary Cinemax) are talking about. The truly radical thing about HBO is its commitment to quality.
It has been one of the most depressing sights of the past decade to watch most popular culture forms lurch ever lower in the quest for higher profits. The highest-grossing movies and pop songs today are almost invariably formulaic and banal. The obsession with the bottom line has caused the manufacturers of culture to hit rock bottom. Playing to the lowest common denominator meant that no one bothered to look upwards any more. Why would they, when dumbing down artistically meant cleaning up financially?
Peter Aspden is the FT's arts writer.