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It's Not HBO. It's Basic Cable TV.

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AMC’s Mad Men. AMC

The New York Times’ Bill Carter rounds up the hot hot hot summer that basic cable TV has been having, with The Closer, Army Wives, Mad Men, Saving Grace, Damages and others becoming critical or commercial hits or both.

The summer-is-the-season-for-cable story is a bit of a perennial, but cable does seem to be hitting a kind of critical mass this year. Quality-wise, there hasn’t been a single big-network fall pilot I’ve been as enthusiastic about as Mad Men, for instance. But while these stories tend to pit basic cable against the shrinking broadcast networks, there’s a noteworthy flip side to the story: none of the aforementioned shows are on HBO, either. There’s a revealing snippet in Carter’s interview with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner:

“Mad Men” had been a finished script for years. Mr. Weiner said, when he got a call “out of nowhere” that AMC was interested, he first thought the offer might be leverage to get a deal at HBO. But once he heard AMC’s plans for the show, “I said to myself, this is where I want to be.”

Now, yeah, yeah, I’m thinking the same thing you are: If HBO had offered Weiner a deal before he signed with AMC, he’d have disappeared, leaving a little cartoon puff of smoke and a pen spinning in place on the unsigned AMC contract. Maybe.

But I’m not totally cynical about his statement. He may have a practical point. At HBO, Mad Men would have been one of many dramas, and if it didn’t explode out of the gate, it could have easily been cancelled. With AMC willing to stake money and prestige on the show to brand itself, the bar is lower and the chance of success higher: get the good reviews and even modest ratings, and you can easily keep your show on for several years, running it exactly the way you want to with AMC’s gratitude. That’s as close to a creative blank check as you can get.

Granted, that check is a smaller one. Mad Men is lush for basic cable, but the budget constraints sometimes show in the little things, like the credits sequence, which looks like something a first-year graphic-design student threw up on YouTube. (HBO lavishes care on its opening credits like Roman emperor throwing himself a triumph.) But there’s a real argument nowadays for a creator with a great show to take it neither to the big networks nor to HBO but a hungry, basic-tier network.

It’s not like HBO has self-immolated. John from Cincinnati may have disappointed a lot of people (some of them occupying offices at HBO), but Flight of the Conchords is a niche critical hit. Its fall drama Tell Me You Love Me is going to divide critics (I really like it, but some critics are already calling it dull and pretentious)–but whatever its reviews and sexual controversy, it’s a quiet, cerebral show that’s never going to be a big popcorn entertainment like The Sopranos.

It’s not just the big networks, in other words, who need to be worried about basic cable now. But HBO can take comfort in one thing: Carter didn’t even bother to mention Showtime.

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