Thursday, November 29, 2007

Showtime ready to beat HBO at original programs

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.

“Carniv├ále” fared no better. Despite impressive debut ratings and a passionate cult following, the show couldn’t retain its audience. HBO canceled “Carniv├ále” 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.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Forget the writers; how will the strike affect me?

If you’re a TV junkie, one thing you can be thankful for is that Hollywood’s writers and producers are due back at the bargaining table Monday.

That doesn’t guarantee an end to the writers’ strike, which already threatens to end the fall TV season at its halfway point, but the smart money in Hollywood seems to be on both sides reaching an agreement sooner rather than later. That’s good news for those of us who don’t want to see 100-plus channels of unscripted “reality television” or rejected pilots for the next six months.

The last Writers Guild of America strike was in 1988 and lasted 22 weeks.

As usual, the strike comes down to money. The producers have it, and the writers want more of it. Specifically, the writers want to be paid every time someone downloads a movie or TV episode from the Internet. That’s in addition to the upfront money they get from writing the scripts in the first place.

I can see where the writers are coming from. Every episode of “House” I’ve watched this season is one I’ve downloaded from Amazon.com, where they cost $1.99 each. Screenwriters might earn a fraction of a cent from each download, but with enough downloads, it could add up fast.

Still, I refuse to pick sides. Both the writers and the producers are looking out for their own interests, and there’s no moral high ground in that. But that isn’t stopping the writers from painting themselves as the “little guy” and producers as a bunch of evil, money-grubbing fat cats. After all, that’s a Hollywood script that almost writes itself.

The WGA didn’t do its image any favors by picking on Ellen Degeneres, who has refused to shut down her daytime talk show because she has this funny little thing called a contract — which promises her affiliates new episodes, not reruns. Heaven forbid that Ellen look out for herself and her employees by fulfilling her contractual obligations.

If you really want to talk about the “little guy,” he’s the fellow who owns a catering business that’s lost money every day since the strike began. When Hollywood shuts down, the first people to feel it are those who work in the service industries. You can’t sell lattes to writers who are walking picket lines instead banging away at laptops in your cafe.

But I’m not really interested in the little guys, either. Like the writers and producers, I’m looking out for myself. And what I want is a full season of “C.S.I.,” not a schedule full of “American Idol” and “Survivor” clones. Maybe I should make a sign and pace back and forth in front of some screenwriter’s house.

The WGA says it’s looking at the long run, when Internet downloads will become the main way people watch TV and movies. I say I’m looking at the long run, too. If the strike continues, how long will I have to wait for my favorite shows to hit DVD? And when the new season sets finally arrive, will they contain only half the usual number of episodes? These are important questions affecting my TV enjoyment well into 2008.

Probably the only good thing about the strike is its timing. We weren’t going to see too many new scripted dramas and comedies over the next month and a half, anyway. That’s because it’s the Christmas season, when TV programmers’ thoughts turn to endless repeats of classic and not-so-classic holiday fare. Never mind the 30 or so college football bowl games on TV, too.

If nothing else, it’s as good a time as any to check out what’s on BBC America. At least the TV writers over in the land of Shakespeare aren’t on strike.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Looking back at the first year of shocking culture

After writing this column for one year, it’s time to look back and see where some of the past year’s stories stand.

Dec. 7, 2006: I wrote about the newfound respect some science fiction writers, Philip K. Dick in particular, are receiving from traditional literary circles. That trend continued in 2007, when Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Lessing, 88, is the oldest person ever to win the award. Her long career includes two notable transitions. She went from communist to anti-communist and from “serious” fiction to science fiction.

The latter move upset some critics, among them Harold Bloom, who said, “Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable ... fourth-rate science fiction.”

But Lessing is unapologetic. “What (critics) didn't realize was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time,” she said in an interview.

Good for her.

Jan. 4, 2007: I wrote about the new comic strip “Lio” by Mark Tatulli. Since then, “Lio” has increased its following. It now appears in about 275 newspapers worldwide, including The Daily. And that was enough to get Hollywood’s attention.

A live-action film based on the strip is in development.

Jan. 11: Time magazine named “You” its Person of the Year in recognition of ordinary people flooding the Internet with blogs and videos.

The flood continues, and it may be making its biggest impact in politics, where citizens are bypassing the “old media” to spread the word about their preferred presidential candidates. You get a sense of how revolutionary that is when a “second-tier” candidate like Ron Paul raises more than $4 million in one day when his online supporters stage a fundraising drive.

Feb. 1: I continue to receive e-mail about my column on self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Brown, who still hasn’t demonstrated anything that looks like real psychic ability. Perhaps that is why she has moved on to write, with the help of “her spirit guide Francine,” an absurd book titled “Secret Societies ... and How They Affect Our Lives Today.”

March 15: Marvel Comics killed off one of its most recognizable heroes, Captain America. He is still dead, but someone else is set to don an updated version of Cap’s red, white and blue costume. I still say the original Cap will return — eventually.

July 12: A cryptic marketing campaign for an upcoming sci-fi/horror film by producer J.J. Abrams (“Alias”) had fans scouring the Internet for clues. As it turned out, the Web sites www.ethanhaaswasright.com and ethanhaaswaswrong.blogspot.com, which many thought were promoting the then-untitled movie, were for an unrelated role-playing game.

At any rate, the film now has a name, “Cloverfield,” and it opens in theaters Jan. 18.

July 19: “Harry Potter” fans were eagerly awaiting the final book in the saga while trying to avoid spoilers that had leaked online.

By now, everyone who cares knows who lives and who dies. Also, Dumbledore is gay, but we didn’t learn that until months later.

Sept. 6: I wrote about a study published in Nature magazine, which found that the online encyclopedia Wikipedia is almost as accurate as Encyclopaedia Britannica. A spokesman for Britannica then e-mailed me a rebuttal, which included links to stories critical of Nature’s findings.

“Dozens of the so-called inaccuracies they attributed to us were nothing of the kind; they were the result of reviewers expressing opinions that differed from ours about what should be included in an encyclopedia article. In these cases Britannica’s coverage was actually sound,” Britannica responded.

After reading up on the controversy, I’m siding with Britannica, although I still think Wikipedia is an amazingly successful experiment.