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HBO vs. Showtime

Cable TV can be in your face, but sometimes subtlety and silence make the deepest impact. Showtime’s eagerness to tackle controversial and politically incorrect topics puts them in the spotlight often enough, but can this strategy help them defeat the reigning cable champion, HBO, in the eyes of viewers? It might, if they can keep doing it.

Showtime hits a home run

Without question, Showtime has proven itself as the cable outlet with the most guts. Their “No Limits” slogan holds true, particularly with the airing of such controversial programs as the gay series “Queer As Folk” and Adrian Lyne’s recent “You’re not allowed to watch this” film “Lolita.”

With the airing of the new film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel “Lolita” in 1998, Showtime broke all the rules. This candid film, which stars Jeremy Irons as a discreet older man infatuated with an underage girl, caused a commotion in the U.S. movie industry, so much so that the film was banned from American movie theaters and released overseas instead. When it came time to bring “Lolita” to the airwaves, none of the networks would touch the film — except Showtime.

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By premiering the film on their network, Showtime not only stood up to bat, but hit the ball so far out of the park the other networks didn’t see what hit them.

Mark Zakarin, Executive Vice President of Original Programming for Showtime Networks, Inc., tells Hollywood.com exclusively: “As a premium network that is invited into our subscribers’ homes every month, Showtime must provide its viewers with product that they can’t see on any other network. And we believe we are doing just that. What sets us apart from other networks is that we are not afraid to take chances and serve segments of the audience that are being ignored by other networks. Our mission is to provide access to important work that might otherwise not be seen.”

Mass Appeal

If Showtime is making such cutting edge programming, why is HBO still conquering cable?

Simple. Viewers are not ready for Showtime’s poignant yet isolating depictions of society’s non-mainstream collective.

“Queer as Folk,” one of Showtime’s most recent and valiant efforts to enlighten the public about homosexual relationships, may in fact be too aggressive for many viewers. While groundbreaking, American audiences simply tuned out.

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In the unforgiving world of Showtime’s “Resurrection Blvd.,” a Mexican family realizes they must roll with the punches (literally) if they are going to survive. The series focuses on the constant struggle that faces many Hispanics day in and day out. How difficult is it for the cable-watching population to relate to this particular family’s battles and hardships? Apparently, difficult enough. The show – though it boasts a fresh, new voice – is a ratings loser.

This is not to say that Showtime’s original programming is not worth watching. In the cases of both “Queer as Folk” and “Resurrection Blvd.,” valid and important issues are raised for the purpose of entertaining viewers. Whether or not the shows are really entertaining audiences is up for debate.


Sex and Violence Sells

Just like two plus two inevitably equals four, adding sex, women and violence together eventually equals the sum of, “And the award goes to….”
Case in point: HBO’s award-show dominance.

The 2000 Emmy awards saw HBO showered with numerous nominations, nearly the most nominations given to a single network. NBC bested HBO by nine nods.

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While HBO had a grand total of 86 nominations, Showtime’s programming received a total of 11 – none of which included “Queer as Folk” or “Resurrection Blvd.”

So, what happened? It’s all about perception.

Past, Present & Future

Throughout the history of cable TV, HBO has been the innovator in original programming. It has given entertainers such as George Carlin, Robert Klein and many others the venue to play without reservation, in confidence of first amendment. Since then, HBO has paved the way for all other cable channels.

Currently, HBO’s critically acclaimed programs, such as the delicious series “The Sopranos,” starring James Gandolfini — the guilt-ridden Michael Corleone of New Jersey — and “Sex in the City,” starring Sarah Jessica Parker as an independent, single female writer, are both drawing in what could be considered a cult following.

As innovative as Showtime’s content is, does the American viewing public care as much about its characters as HBO’s loyalists? Probably not.

Golden Globes Marks the Spot

At this year’s Golden Globes ceremony, Showtime was honored with seven nominations, but took home only two statues. On the other hand, HBO was given 12 nominations and walked away with awards in four major categories, such as “Sex and the City” for best series (comedy/musical), Sarah Jessica Parker (“Sex and the City”) for best actress (comedy/musical), Vanessa Redgrave (“If These Walls Could Talk 2”) for best supporting actress (series, miniseries, or TV movie) and Judi Dench (“Last of the Blonde Bombshells”)

for best actress (miniseries/TV movie). Although none of Showtime’s original series received accolades by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, their two made-for-TV films, “Dirty Pictures” and “Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman,” did make it to the envelope — “Dirty Pictures” for best miniseries or TV movie and Brian Dennehy (“Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman”) for best actor (miniseries/TV movie).

This may be the exact point: “Dirty Pictures,” a film about the controversial photographer Robert Maplethorpe, beat all others. “Salesman,” a rare broadcast of a Broadway perfection, won its category.

Showtime knows how to stun: they must continue to do so to win.

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