TV's Deregulated Golden Age

Why so few critics understand what made HBO possible


The HBO Effect, by Dean J. DeFino, Bloomsbury Academic, 327 pages, $75

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, by Brett Martin, Penguin Press, 303 pages, $27.95

For decades, no art form was more meticulously regulated by the government than television. For decades, no art form was more relentlessly bashed by its critics. Amazingly, nobody ever seems to make a connection between these two facts.

If we had a U.S. Portraiture Commission with the power to investigate whether Willem De Kooning controlled too much of the abstract impressionist market; or if Philip Roth had to worry about losing his novelist license over those scenes in Portnoy's Complaint with a hooker defecating on a glass-top coffee table; or if some agency, every few years, held hearings in which the public was invited to comment on Oliver Stone's qualifications to make films—doesn't it seem possible that painting and literature and the cinema would be different, and probably worse, than they are now?

What makes this blind spot about regulation's effect on art even more curious is that over the past two decades, as TV has increasingly slipped the bit of government regulation from its mouth, programming has dramatically improved. The latter event, anyway, has not escaped attention. Critics and television historians have arrived at a consensus that the Golden Age of television was not the 1950s but right now, and that it was ushered in by HBO, which shattered the TV programming mold with The Sopranos.

That's true as far as it goes. The suburban mobsters of The Sopranos committed as many felonious assaults on the rules of television screenwriting as they did on rival crews. From the relatively trivial (much of the show takes place in a strip club) to the previously unthinkable (a protagonist who is not only unheroic but profoundly and demonstrably evil) to the dramaturgically perverse (what did happen to that Chechen hit man who went running naked into the woods at the end of the "Pine Barrens" episode?), The Sopranos demonstrated anarchic contempt for the established order of TV storytelling.

The success of Tony Soprano & Co. opened the way for a generation of television heroes ranging from existentially troubled (the 9/11-damaged firemen of Rescue Me) to the flatly crazy (the manic-depressive CIA officer of Homeland, so wracked with personal and professional paranoia that it took us a full season to figure out if the guy she was targeting was really a terrorist mole or an innocent victim) to the homicidal (the serial-killer-next-door of Dexter). Not only has it become nearly impossible to separate the good guys from the bad, but on shows like Sons of Anarchy, where an arms-trafficking motorcycle gang slugs it out with voracious developers, or Breaking Bad, where a bedraggled cancer victim remakes himself as a murderous narcotics kingpin, there may not even be any good guys.

The result has been a bumper crop of intriguing TV dramas that are frequently a better creative bet than a movie industry increasingly dominated by slob comedies and superhero stories. From Martin Scorsese, who produces the birth-of-the-Mob Boardwalk Empire, to Steven Spielberg, about to launch his fourth season of homicidal space bugs on TNT's Falling Skies, more and more of Hollywood's big names are turning up on the small screen. At a press conference a few years ago, Ray Liotta was asked why he was doing a TV series rather than looking for a movie deal. He rolled his eyes and countered with a question of his own: "Have you seen movies lately?"

HBO's key role in this process is indisputable. Even before The Sopranos, the company was pushing all sorts of envelopes with the prison drama Oz, which had far fewer viewers but far more deviance, in every sense of the word. (The very first episode included cannibalism and a homosexual rape that ended in the branding of a swastika on the victim's butt.) And the many series that followed proved beyond a doubt that the The Sopranos was no mere lucky punch. Carnivale, a tale of itinerant Depression-era carnies, reimagined the 1930s political storm clouds of fascism and communism as the birth pains of the antichrist. Game of Thrones allowed modern anxieties about class, religion, and sexuality to play out in the guise of medieval mythology. Scorsese's Prohibition-era gangster drama Boardwalk Empire examines how women's suffrage and the Progressive movement inadvertently midwifed organized crime. The revisionist Western Deadwood not only emphasized the role of property rights in establishing civilization but also revealed exactly what Miss Kitty was doing upstairs at the Long Branch all those years on Gunsmoke.

But the question rarely asked and never answered in these discussions is: Why HBO? As the ratings for The Sopranos steadily climbed—the premiere episode of its third season, in 2001, drew 11.3 million viewers, which would have been a good number for a broadcast show and was a staggering number for a cable channel that reached fewer than a third of American homes—a growing buzz was heard from not only critics but even television executives themselves: Why doesn't broadcast television have anything like this?

Bob Wright, NBC's CEO at the time, grew so irritated by the grumbling within his own ranks that he sent tapes of The Sopranos to some of his colleagues with a memo asking if anybody thought the network could possibly air it. (Coincidentally or not, the episode Wright sent out included a notoriously brutal scene of a psycho Mob boss beating his stripper girlfriend to death in the club parking lot.) The answer, of course, was a unanimous "not on our corporate lives." When HBO bosses heard of the stunt, they took it as an insult. But Wright regarded it as a simple recognition of reality: A premium-cable network beholden neither to the Federal Communications Commission nor to advertisers was more free to unleash flying lead and billowing bosoms than its broadcast rivals.

Having made his point, Wright moved on without bothering to inquire how or why the rules had been written. Critics and historians, who might have been expected to look further, also did not. They mostly credited everything to the sheer artistic genius of HBO management—the network's "fostering of creativity in a medium notoriously averse to risk," as the Iona English professor Dean J. DeFino puts it in his new study The HBO Effect. Why television for its first four or five decades should have been more averse to risk and less attractive to creativity than the rest of Hollywood is a matter that continues to receive little consideration.

The HBO Effect and magazine writer Brett Martin's Difficult Men are the two most recent additions to the small but growing library of works seeking to document and explain our new Golden Age of Television. Like their predecessors, they mostly espouse what might be called the Thus Spake Tony Soprano Theory of TV History: From a primeval soup of mediocrity, a breed of Nietzschean super-executives arose to ruthlessly destroy all that had gone before.

Difficult Men is at once the less culpable and more egregiously stupid of the two books in its accounting of the factors that shaped the early television industry. Martin's book is a series of highly entertaining profiles of the best and brightest television producers of the last 15 years, from The Sopranos' perennially depressed David Chase to Mad Men's sly Matthew Weiner, who smiled in his enemies' faces ("Did you actually say 'fuck you' to me? OK. Well, you don't mean it") and then put their names on tombstones in the backgrounds of scenes.

Martin interviewed many of these men—yes, they're nearly all men—while writing for GQ and authoring an official companion book for the final season of The Sopranos, and he displays an enviable skill for coaxing anecdotes from his subjects. I could only marvel, for instance, at David Chase's disclosure that ABC at one point was going to put him in charge of its nostalgic coming-of-age-in-the-'70s drama The Wonder Years. His first script had the show's 13-year-old hero sharing a pack of butts with the ghost of Holden Caulfield, and the network, as they say in Hollywood, decided to go in another direction. ABC's invitation probably never would have been extended in the first place had the network known that CBS had already booted another Chase submission, a series about a Mob wife that included a character with the not-exactly-FCC-friendly name Big Pussy. (The name, if not the persona, would get a second chance in The Sopranos.)

It's entirely possible that both Big Pussy and Caulfield's ghost were acts of deliberate sabotage by Chase, whose principal career strategy for decades had been to collect a high salary while screwing up television writing projects so badly that they never get shot, thus giving him time to plot a career in what he really wanted to do, making movies. "I thought, 'These cocksuckers will never get anything on the air and I'll be able to do nothing and write my movies," Chase explains.

When he couldn't sell his movie scripts, his plan went into Machiavellian overdrive. "Chase dreamed of selling a TV idea that was good enough to get a pilot made but not so good that it would ever go to series," Martin writes. "That way, he reasoned, he could ask the studio, having already invested in an hour-long pilot, to cut its losses by putting up a relatively small amount to finish the story as a stand-alone movie." Catastrophically, CBS loved the pilot in question (another coming-of-age tale called Almost Grown) and bought the series. The horrified Chase called his bewildered agent with a frantic plea: "You've got to get me out of this!"

There is more, much more, of this wildly entertaining anecdotage—for instance, the weird groupie scene that developed on the set of HBO's The Wire, which used America's failing war on drugs as a lens through which to examine broader themes of urban dysfunction. In his interview with Martin, Andre Royo, who played a keenly observant heroin addict, ticked off a list of cast members: "Idris [Elba]? Nothing but bitches outside his trailer. Dom West? Nothing but bitches. Sonja [Sohn]? Dudes and bitches. Me? I'd have junkies out there."

Then there's producer David Milch's pitch to HBO for a show about Roman centurions, which started with the theories of theologian Paul Tillich on the symbolism of the Christian cross, veered into social biology ("baboons can only move in groups of 44 because they have to be able to see their leader"), and ended by pondering whether Paul's epiphany on the road to Damascus was really just an epileptic seizure. Great, replied the dazed HBO bosses, but could you do it as a western? "Thus, Deadwood was born," Martin concludes. (Later, Martin adds, HBO would buy a Milch pitch so meandering and abstruse that it made his Deadwood concept "look like Murder, She Wrote." The result was John From Cincinnati, a surfers-meet-the-messiah parable so inscrutably weird that the show's other producers regularly huddled on the set to see if anyone had a clue what it was about.)

Martin's perceptiveness about the creative side of television makes his dull-witted observations about the business side more appalling, even though they're only made in passing. The couple of dozen pages of background with which he introduces Difficult Men read very much like something an editor demanded he tack onto the manuscript to give it some context.

There are a few apt but tangential points about the primitive technology that held back the quality of television programming in the 1950s: the complications of shooting material with bulky, immobile cameras to be viewed on tiny TV-set screens; the traditional broadcast abhorrence of dead air that made screenplays overly chatty; the lack of home TV recording devices, which made serialized programming chancy. But Martin's few forays into economics range from addled to dead wrong.

To cite merely one awful example, the regulations on the ownership and syndication of TV shows that the FCC imposed in 1970 to prevent TV networks from producing and owning their own programming—what the industry called fin-syn rules, for financing and syndication—were not a boon for quality television, as Martin suggests, but a setback. Most broadcast television programs lose money during their first run. They make it back (by the truckload) when they're sold into syndication, where they can run forever with virtually no overhead. That means financing them up front represents a leap of faith. When the networks, the savviest and most deep-pocketed backers, were excluded by government from the pool of potential financiers, producers got more conservative, going with the same simpering sitcoms and predictable cop dramas that had always worked rather than experimenting with new ideas. It's no coincidence that the wave of shows that launched what we're now calling the Golden Age of Television started rolling only after the fin-syn rules were repealed in the 1990s.

These rules had nothing to do with the interests of viewers. They were, like so many regulations in so many fields, intended to re-slice the economic pie to the benefit of politically favored classes. And the idea that the government would take action to force the networks to produce "better" shows is, if anything, even more horrifying. We don't expect or want the government to intervene to promote its ideas of good novels or movies or rock 'n' roll records. Why should television programming be any different?

Yet, appallingly, Martin seems to endorse this very idea, quoting approvingly from FCC Chairman Newton Minow's notorious 1961 speech in which he dismissed television as a "vast wasteland" and threatened to revoke the licenses of TV stations that continued to air what he called "a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons." Give or take The Price Is Right, that sounds pretty much like the HBO prime-time lineup.

Minow would have hated HBO. That's why he and other FCC commissioners battled so tirelessly to prevent cable television from intruding on broadcast television's monopoly. That monopoly was created by the FCC itself during television's infancy, when the commission issued rules for ownership and signal strength that effectively prevented anybody but the big three radio companies—ABC, NBC, and CBS—from getting into the network television business.

The FCC did not immediately sense the potential for competition with broadcasters when commercial cable was created in the late 1940s to aid TV reception in small rural towns where the signals from distant big cities arrived faintly if at all. And as long as cable functioned as nothing more than a community antenna in small-town America, the FCC paid it little heed. (In fact, one of the commission's protectionist gestures toward broadcasters—freezing the issuance of new station licenses between 1948 and 1952—gave cable an inadvertent boost, spurring its growth in cities that didn't have their own stations yet.)

But as soon as cable owners started linking their systems together via microwave, in effect creating their own television networks, the FCC went for their throats. Initially the commission simply used its licensing authority over microwave companies to prevent them from doing business with cable. But by the mid-1960s—armed with court decisions giving the commissioners authority to regulate cable, even though it didn't make any use of the broadcast spectrum that the FCC was created to allocate—the commission began to clamp down.

Part of the story of the FCC's astonishing war on cable is told in DeFino's The HBO Effect, albeit with a curious reluctance to acknowledge the commission's intent. In 1965 the FCC imposed the twin doctrines of "must-carry," compelling cable companies to include all local channels in their service, eating up much of their carrying capacity, and "distant signal," which required the 100 largest cable companies to prove that importing out-of-town stations was in the "public interest." (Shockingly, it almost never was.) The two requirements effectively restricted cable to functioning as a sort of enhanced antenna. Incredibly, DeFino refers to this crippling blow as an attempt by the FCC to give itself "breathing room." Two years later, breaths apparently caught, the FCC commissioners explicitly acknowledged that they saw their mission as the protection of the broadcast monopoly, which they did with a brutal set of "anti-siphoning rules" designed to keep cable from competing for viewers. HBO's antecedents were prohibited from showing series, movies between two and 10 years old, and any sporting event that had been televised by broadcast networks during the previous decade.

Periodically, some inventive cable company would find enough wiggle room in the rules to offer subscribers original programming. Among the best segments of DeFino's book is his resurrection of the forgotten history of one of the most interesting early experiments in what was then called "pay television": a California outfit called Subscription Television Inc. This Western renegade offered a three-channel system featuring major-league baseball, first-run films, and a handful of tony cultural and educational programs. Put together by Pat Weaver, the disgruntled former NBC programmer who invented both the Today and Tonight shows, Subscription Television created so much buzz during its few months on the air in 1964 that it triggered the greatest Hollywood miracle since Cecil B. DeMille parted the Red Sea: America's TV executives and movie-theater operators, blood enemies from birth, united to make war on the newcomer. Running ads with headlines like "This Could Be the Last World Series on Free TV," they launched a pogrom that ended with a public referendum outlawing pay TV in California.

The spectacle of industries using the ballot box to outlaw competitors without even the faintest pretext of nobler purpose was so appalling that Time was moved to wonder if it would become a regular feature of the American economy: "A united front of gluemakers, for example, might collect enough votes to ban the manufacture of Scotch tape. Chrysler could war on General Motors. Whichever collected the fewest votes would die a corporate death." Courts would eventually overturn the referendum, but by then Subscription Television's contractors and investors were gone with the regulatory wind.

The California referendum may have been the most blatant regulatory roadblock thrown up against cable, but it wasn't the only one. HBO itself launched in a single tiny market—Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania—in 1972 but barely qualified as a niche player until regulation began to fade. An offshoot of a Manhattan cable company, HBO was on the air only a few hours a day, squeezing between the FCC regulatory cracks with a mixture of movies and sports (such as boxing or hockey) that the broadcast networks reliably ignored. As DeFino notes, the company surely never would have survived without the deep pockets of Time-Warner. For all its contemporary braying about corporate concentration and the importance of local ownership in television, the FCC's accumulated policies made it impossible for anyone but major corporate players to get a toehold in the market.

Despite his acknowledgement of HBO's cold, corporate bloodlines, DeFino strives mightily to portray it as the cultural love child of what he calls the 1960s "cloud of utopian rhetoric" and Minowesque cultural critics of TV's wasteland. But I seriously doubt that many from the latter faction would regard the fashionista fornicators of Sex and the City or the murderous mercantilists of The Sopranos as the culmination of their dreams. To the extent that anti-TV cultural critics had any influence, they retarded the growth of cable, and their vision of television as a collection of elevated public-access channels found little resonance with actual viewers.

What really opened the doors for HBO to change from a regional boutique into a national network was the federal courts, which in the 1970s and 1980s began dismantling the protectionist bunker the FCC had built for broadcast television, plus a startling burst of deregulationist fervor from a little-known Nixon administration fiefdom, the White House Office of Telecommunications. Run by a young electrical-engineer-turned-economist named Clay T. Whitehead (with able assistance from a hard-nosed attorney named Antonin Scalia), the office mounted a bureaucratic insurgency to permit private companies to launch communications satellites.

Whitehead's "open skies" policy became law in 1974. When RCA launched its Satcom 1 satellite the next year, HBO was its first television customer. Showtime, TBS, C-SPAN, and the channels that would eventually become the USA and Christian Broadcasting networks were quick on its heels, and the cable revolution had begun. Freed of the need to manage long chains of microwave repeaters to relay their signals, cable channels flourished and multiplied. The stage was now set for Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw to make their entrance.

DeFino's account of cable's emergence from regulatory purgatory is murky at best. (It's hard to say which he knows less about, economics or the construction of narrative lines.) Even so, it's the high point of his book, the rest of which is a mindless encomium to HBO's artistic genius. Even there, economic illiteracy colors DeFino's critical judgments-for instance, when he sneers that the overwhelming majority of broadcast-network series don't survive a single season because they are developed with a faddish "market-based approach" rather than HBO's commitment to overall quality.

In fact, HBO's subscribers are no less a market than the broadcast audience, and HBO's attempts to catch their fancy are no less susceptible to horrifying breakdown. You've probably never heard of 12 Miles of Bad Road, a lampoon of the Texas real-estate business, even though it was written by one of Hollywood's power-producers, Linda Bloodworth-Thomson, and featured a cast that included Lily Tomlin, Mary Kay Place, Kim Dickens, and Gary Cole. That's because HBO executives, after producing six episodes in 2007, had a sudden attack of what-were-we-thinking and pulled the plug without ever airing one of them.

There are fewer of these catastrophes on HBO because the company is only trying to create two or three hours of original series programming per week, instead of the 18 hours most of the broadcast networks have to fill. And with less programming on hand, HBO cannot easily plug sudden holes in its lineup, which means a nonperforming series will generally continue for the planned length of its run rather than being yanked quickly. But that doesn't mean HBO doesn't pay careful attention both to Nielsen ratings and to its own undisclosed (and perhaps dubious) metrics that measure water-cooler buzz, probably the network's best marketing tool. Whatever few misbegotten fans watched the puzzling metaphysical twaddle of John From Cincinnati or the even more inscrutable Washington twaddle of K Street can testify that HBO is ruthless with shows that aren't carrying their weight.

DeFino's ignorance about the arcane business practices of the television industry might be forgivable; even its own executives sometimes sound like a bunch of kids shooting craps behind the junior-high gym, feigning allegiance to mathematics as they play wild hunches. (I once sat transfixed in a press conference where Susan Line, then the chief programmer at ABC, introduced her show Are You Hot: The Search for America's Sexiest People with the boast that it was "a contest where intelligence and achievement have absolutely no bearing.") But DeFino's ignorance of television history is staggering for somebody who is writing, um, television history.

Contra The HBO Effect, the first hit prime-time serial was not NBC's cop drama Hill Street Blues but the soap opera Peyton Place, which aired 17 years earlier on ABC. (Hill Street Blues wasn't even the first serialized cop show; in 1963 ABC's 77 Sunset Strip drew out a story line over five weeks in an experiment considered so daring that TV Guide published a story about it.) The practice of breaking television's fourth wall-that is, having a character address the audience directly-didn't originate on HBO's It's Gary Shandling's Show in the late 1980s but during the 1959-63 run of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, if not earlier. The satirical TV newscast was popularized not by HBO's Not Necessarily the News, which debuted in 1982, but the Weekend Update segments that began seven years before on Saturday Night Live. (Seriously: Has DeFino never heard the expression "Jane, you ignorant slut"?) The form was actually invented in 1964 with NBC's That Was the Week That Was, or, if our former colonial overseers must be given their due, the original BBC version that launched two years earlier.

DeFino's curious sense of history sometimes transcends mere facts to embrace a deeper current of truth not discernible to unaltered consciousness. To see Fred Rogers—the auteur of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, a kiddie hangout so tranquil it made Dick and Jane's green-and-white house look like a crack den—as one of the forefathers of HBO and its collection of homicidal loons and lubricious slatterns, for example, takes a very special understanding of television. DeFino doesn't explain his claim, but I can only guess it stems from an appearance Rogers made before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969.

The Nixon administration was trying to cut a proposed $20 million subsidy for PBS in half. Rogers, testifying against the cut, suddenly burst into the kiddie blank verse for which he was famous. "What do you do with the mad that you feel / when you feel so mad you could bite?" he asked the nonplussed subcommittee chairman, John Pastore of Rhode Island. "I think you just earned your $20 million," Pastore replied. David Milch couldn't have imagined it any better.