HBO and Feature Film-quality TV

Back in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, HBO became a major enemy of the motion picture industry. This was primarily due to the fact that HBO bought the rights to so many films owned by the studios, using the guise of convenience and lower price of subscription television to deliver the films to their viewers. HBO quickly became one of the biggest purchasers of Hollywood films, much to the dismay of the studios(seeing as HBO was literally sapping their revenue).

In this regard, HBO acted as a disruptive innovation for the film distribution industry. What originally required large amounts of marketing and production of home video(as well as working to get the films into theaters) now was as simple as broadcasting on TV. Obviously, this is a system which is still in effect today – seeing as most internet users seek to simply rent videos online, or stream them from home, as opposed to buying or renting the physical media from a store. That being said, HBO has done much more for the television industry today.

Cast of The Sopranos during its fourth season

In 1999, HBO aired the first episode of what would become one of the most important television shows ever released, The Sopranos. Though the show would become notorious for its obscene amount of language, violence, nudity and drugs(usually all of them at once), The Sopranos became famous for another reason – bringing feature film quality production values to the television. The series took on a style which did not attempt to emulate other series on at the time(think of how much Friends wanted to be like Seinfeld in its earlier seasons) or that have been on prior. The Sopranos proved that by using such quality production values and writing, a larger audience could be reached, and more Emmys could be accumulated.

 

Aaron Paul(left) and Bryan Cranston(right), the two principal characters of Breaking Bad

Despite the fact that it’s been off the air for more than a decade now, the series still continues to influence others. It’s dark tone and subject matter likely inspired television series such as Breaking Bad, which premiered six months after The Sopranos ended. Similar to how The Sopranos was noted for its complexity, Breaking Bad implemented complex techniques and motifs which occurred throughout the series’ five-season run. And, just as The Sopranos brought in record viewership for HBO(at the time), Breaking Bad did the same for AMC, which further cemented this ideology in place – higher production values, more creative control, and better writing made Breaking Bad the series which it was.

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Cast of Game of Thrones

To be fair, I’m not saying that in order to make a good, popular TV series, it has to be a crime drama about some corrupt kingpin, but rather, the mentality of treating the production of television series as if they were feature films has proven to be successful. In 2011, HBO had another winner with Game of Thrones, which is probably the most popular drama series on television today, with a medieval fantasy setting. The series carries a massive budget of $10 million per episode, and many critics praise the series for production values similar to that of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

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The main cast of Stranger Things

This trend of focusing on production values has reached web-exclusive series, as well. Most notably, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Netflix’s Stranger Things have both gotten critical acclaim and massive viewership(if Game of Thrones isn’t the most popular drama on television, then Stranger Things is). Both series are highly stylized, and as such, have attracted massive attention. Sure, there are series on network television which have higher viewership(even more than series like Thrones), although they aren’t discussed as much. Most likely this is due to their similarities, such as the endless slew of police procedurals on CBS.

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Rami Malek as the main character in a scene from Mr. Robot. The show has received recognition due to its unconventional shot framing.

This trend is still continuing today. USA’s Mr. Robot is arguably the most stylized program that’s been on television in a very long time, mostly due to how much creative control Sam Esmail maintains. Television series now seek to further distinguish themselves from other programs, producing their own identities in order to stand out and get recognition. These identities, however, were mostly found after The Sopranos encouraged television producers to care more for their programs. I can’t say for sure whether or not Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones would have existed today if it weren’t for The Sopranos, but I don’t think their production values, and therefore, the show’s quality, would be nearly as much as they actually are.

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