Wednesday, March 28, 2007

With HBO in Decline, Could Now Be Showtime’s Time?

Once upon a time, HBO was the undisputed king when it came to providing unique, in-your-face, groundbreaking entertainment options. Shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under all managed to worm their way into the public zeitgeist, whether through unparalleled creativity, endless promotion, or a combination of both.

But with the final season of The Sopranos set to premier on April 8, HBO finds itself in an unusual position: as a network that’s not only taken some hits recently, but seeking some hits - while rival network Showtime positions itself to take over the mantle of “it” pay cable destination.

The ascendancy of Showtime and the descendency of HBO has taken a few years, but we’re now in the thick of it. Recently, the former is the network with all of the buzz. Stellar shows like Dexter, Sleeper Cell, Weeds and others have helped build, if not Showtime’s audience, at least its buzz quotient. The network is slowly but surely creeping into the space that was once owned by HBO: high-quality, unusual comedies and dramas (sometimes both in one show) that appeal to an educated, upscale audience.

Meanwhile, HBO is seeing many of its most popular shows fade into the sunset. In addition to The Sopranos, recent departures have included the popular Deadwood, which stunningly got cancelled after three seasons, and Rome, which became too costly to make after two. Entourage is still there, and Big Love appears to show some staying power, but these have always been more or less minor hits for the network, and do not have the cultural cache that The Sopranos, for example, does (don’t think you’ll be seeing Bill Paxton on the cover of Vanity Fair anytime soon).

Showtime’s current and upcoming slate, however, features many diverse and daring shows. Chief among them is likely The Tudors, which premiers April 1. It follows the sordid and salacious affairs of King Henry VIII, played by up-and-comer Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Perhaps the type of costume drama that can satisfy fans of both Desperate Housewives and Rome? Time will tell. Early reviews have been positive, as they have been for This American Life, the network’s televised version of the National Public Radio show, featuring host Ira Glass.

Both networks have an aggressive slate of shows on the horizon, with HBO perhaps ready to be the wilder and crazier of the two. Maybe the most interesting (or downright odd) is HBO’s John From Cincinnati. No one seems to know what this one’s about, except that it deals with philosophy, surfing and - get this - aliens from outer space! It’s so weird, it could work. Clearly, HBO is at least hoping to start some discussion with it, to restore some potentially lost luster. Other shows in development at HBO include the medical drama In Treatment, the biopic John Adams, and a potential series based upon George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice series of books, among other things.

DexterShowtime, on the other hand, has another season of Dexter in the wings, as well as David Duchovny’s return to television in a comedy called Californication. The Duchovy vehicle will premier this summer; Dexter will slash its way back to the schedule in the fall.

By the time 2008 is over, will there be a clear winner in this battle? Probably not. My guess, however, is that when the dust settles, we’ll see HBO’s subscriber base decrease while Showtime’s rises. If it’s going to happen, now’s certainly the time.