HBO’s dominance of premium cable TV may finally be ending, just as the channel’s main rival seems ready to mount a challenge.
“Sex and the City” is long gone, and “The Sopranos” has faded to black. For years, they were the pillars of HBO’s original programming, but HBO’s potential replacements have lacked staying power. HBO canceled “Rome” after two seasons, and to the disappointment of many fans and critics, HBO pulled the plug on its gritty western “Deadwood” after three seasons.
“Carnivàle” fared no better. Despite impressive debut ratings and a passionate cult following, the show couldn’t retain its audience. HBO canceled “Carnivàle” after two seasons.
“John From Cincinnati,” the heir apparent to “The Sopranos,” flopped. Of the original programs remaining on HBO’s schedule, “The Wire” is entering its final season and “Extras,” a British import from Ricky Gervais, creator of “The Office,” will air its final episode next month. That leaves “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Entourage” and “Big Love.”
Meanwhile, HBO’s newest series, “Tell Me You Love Me,” aired to lower-than-expected ratings despite the controversy aroused by the show’s sexual content. The sex scenes in “Tell Me” are some of the most realistic and explicit ever to air on HBO, and if that can’t attract an audience, what can?
Of course, maybe the viewers who would tune in for the sex are turned off by all of the uncomfortable talk about sex, and vice versa. “Tell Me” stubbornly insists on doing both.
Yet while HBO is struggling to retain its reputation for cutting-edge original programming, longtime also-ran Showtime seemingly can do no wrong. HBO isn’t in danger of losing its No. 1 position in terms of subscribers — HBO has about twice as many as Showtime — but it is dangerously close to becoming unhip. HBO looks more and more like CBS, which is No. 1 in the ratings but skews toward older viewers, despite airing three “CSI” variations.
For years, original programming on Showtime meant the soft-focus sex of “Red Shoe Diaries,” which, while definitely stylish, lacked something in the prestige department. Now, it means a likeable serial killer, which gives Showtime a better chance of winning some of those Emmys that HBO has been stockpiling for the past decade.
Leading the way for Showtime is “Dexter,” which, in terms a Hollywood executive could understand, is “CSI” meets Hannibal Lecter.
The title character, Dexter Morgan, is a blood splatter expert for the Miami police. He is also a serial killer who hunts down and kills other serial killers. “Dexter” has given Showtime its best ratings ever for original programming.
Then there is “The Tudors,” a saucy mix of soap opera and sex set early in the reign of England’s Henry VIII. Most viewers don’t notice the historical inaccuracies, and most critics are willing to overlook them.
Lastly, David Duchovny, star of “The X-Files” and “Red Shoe Diaries,” returns to Showtime in “Californication,” in which he plays a writer with a serious case of writer’s block but no shortage of female companions.
All three have boosted Showtime’s credibility and added to a schedule that also includes “The L Word,” “Weeds” and “Penn & Teller: Bull----,” a documentary series in which the Las Vegas magicians turn their wits to debunking scams and hoaxes ranging from UFOs to alternative medicine.
Even if you’re not a Showtime subscriber, never fear. Season sets of Showtime programs cost about half as much as DVD sets of most HBO series. I won’t pay $80 for a season of “Rome,” but I’ll gladly pay $30 for a season of “The Tudors.” So do what I do: Rent one DVD, and if you like it, buy the box set.