BROOKE GLADSTONE: TV that makes you feel good is not what you'll find on the new HBO series Six Feet Under.
WOMAN: How's it going with you?
MAN: Oh-- it's great. Great, you know, my father's dead; my mom's a whore; my brother wants to kill me, and my sister's smoking crack.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The mobsters on the Sopranos, the inmates of Oz and even the whiney sirens of Sex and the City make HBO quite the rogues gallery. Joining me now is Tad Friend, staff writer of the New Yorker who's written an article about the cable TV channel. Tad, why are the shows on HBO so dark?
TAD FRIEND: Oddly enough, they are actually physically dark. The -- if you look at the screen, there'll be fewer pixels or lumens or whatever it is on the screen, and a, a lot of net--network producers have told me that when they make a show they often film it darker than they want it to be, because they know that when it goes through the network feed it's going to - they're gonna wash it with light to make it seem more cheerful and more happy, more upbeat. As far as the thematic darkness, I - one of the people I spoke with for my article is Scott Sassa who's the head of NBC, and he pointed out that HBO is for people who feel under-served by network television. That was his phrase. Right now the networks, because they are designed to get advertisers, are doing a lot of shows that are very cheerful and upbeat and optimistic, so HBO really, you know, in a way-- they keep a constant eye to what the networks are doing and say if the networks are doing what we're doing, we're doing something wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:In your article, the creator of Six Feet Under, Alan Ball, who also wrote American Beauty, told you that he was so excited to work on a show for HBO because he wouldn't have to worry about commercials! But it isn't just halting a story every 15 minutes that he resented about commercial TV! There was a whole host of things!
TAD FRIEND: Yes. He created a show for ABC the year before called Oh, Grow Up which was a very bad sit-com; actually it was amazingly bad, given that he did such wonderful work on American Beauty, and the reason it was bad, he says, and I, I would have to agree with him, is that the network basically told him no conflict, no subtext. Everything should be explained very clearly to the viewer--; no one should fight. And he pointed out to me, he said you know drama is conflict and subtext. If you take those two things out, you have network television.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Where network TV is concerned, what they want to do is deliver eyeballs to advertisers; what they want to do on cable -- or at least HBO--
TAD FRIEND: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- is deliver subscribers into the system. So how does that change the kind of programming that you're pitching at them?
TAD FRIEND: Well, the, the networks don't make any money if they have 50 million people watching a show and there are no advertisers who want to advertise on that show. Advertisers, to be grossly simplistic, want their people who are looking at their advertisements to be in a cheerful, happy, pleasant, mildly tranquilized mood. HBO already has people who have paid for this service. Its job is to keep them paying for it at the end of every month. It means you can have very different kind of programming. Jeff Bewkus, the head of the network, told me that last year when they put on a show called The Corner, which was a mini-series about crack addicts mostly in Baltimore, it was a very dark, very bleak show and he was saying we'd rather put that on and maybe get much smaller ratings than we would with something that would attract 35 percent of our audience, as long as we get good critical reception and we reach people who are not being reached by other kinds of shows on HBO.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You say that HBO made more money than any other network -- in fact, and I really find this hard to believe -- you say that HBO made more money than the other networks combined!
TAD FRIEND: Two of the network heads I spoke to - Lessman was at CBS and Scott Sassa at NBC both frankly said boy, do I envy HBO. It's a much better business to be in. They -- the networks are just, you know, their audience share has been dropping for the last 25 years, and right now the networks' business is a terrible business to be in. There's sort of no end in sight.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You said that an HBO employee said it was important if the Shales's got excited - you know, the Tom Shales -- the, the TV critics. Here's what Tom Shales said in his Washington Post review about Six Feet Under. He said Six Feet Under establishes from the start that it will be unflinching and brazen and, as it happens, scorchingly brilliant. So then if the networks pander to the mass audience, isn't HBO similarly pandering to the people they call "cultural interpreters?"
TAD FRIEND: In a way I think the, the critics are in the same way that the networks test shows with focus groups, which is you know average Americans sitting in a mall somewhere toggling switches back and forth; HBO tests its shows with critics. I would take issue with the word "pandering" because pand-- the implication of "pandering" is that you're serving something up that you believe is beneath the mark that you could actually hit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fair enough.
TAD FRIEND:And, and I think-- HBO is certainly aiming to please critics, and their theory is that that has a snowball effect where if the critics like it, then people read the newspapers and it - the, the show becomes a kind of --gradually a cultural phenomenon the way Sop--the Sopranos has.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:HBO can show whatever they want to show, and what they want to show is autopsies in Six Feet Under or beating strippers to death in The Sopranos or homosexual rape in Oz. Now they would say they're just going where the stories take them, but if they didn't have those very graphic and shocking scenes, would they be able to say it's not TV -- it's HBO?
TAD FRIEND: They-- never quite come out and say this but they certainly like to get headlines and have people be titillated and shocked. Tom Fontana, the creator of Oz, told me that he was always being told by the HBO people to --not to be afraid to be reviled.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But HBO hires people like David Chase of the Sopranos, Alan Ball of Six Feet Under, Tom Fontana of Oz -- to produce those programs that may be reflective of reality. Would HBO ever pick up Aaron Sorkin, the creator of West Wing and say come on down?
TAD FRIEND: Well, i-- the West Wing is a bit of a, a bugaboo at HBO. They talk about it a lot, privately, because they're basically pissed off that it won the Emmy last year and they, they can't believe it and they think it's--sugary and false and, and-- and network TV at its finest which they feel is anathema to what they're doing. I spoke to Aaron Sorkin about that very issue. I said well you know, what would your show be like if it were on HBO? And he said it would be a better show. He said, you know, the, the President Bartlett could swear; we wouldn't have hired someone as handsome as Rob Lowe. We'd have a much more realistic White House lawyer -- and then he paused and he said --but I don't tend to write like that. And there is a self-selecting system. It's not that everyone wants to work at HBO and only the best people get chosen. Everyone who writes for HBO has written for the networks before. They don't take people from the movies; they take people from the networks who are fed up with that and want to do something a little different.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tad Friend -- thank you very much!
TAD FRIEND: You're welcome!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tad Friend's article: The Next Big Bet appeared in the May 14th issue of the New Yorker.