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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 February, 2004, 15:49 GMT
The channel that transformed TV
By Neil Smith
BBC News Online

Critically acclaimed US TV shows Angels in America dominated the 2004 Emmy Awards. Like Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City, it comes from HBO, which has emerged as one of television's most powerful and influential forces.

James Gandolfini
The Sopranos was another big winner at the Emmys
Established in 1972 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, HBO - Home Box Office - began distributing its programmes by satellite in 1975 and became a 24-hour channel three years later.

Currently HBO produces comedy, drama, children's shows, documentaries and music specials. It also co-owns the Comedy Central and Black Entertainment Television stations.

HBO is unlike mainstream American networks, in that it is a cable channel paid by subscription rather than advertising.

This means HBO has none of the family viewing concerns that free-to-air American networks have, so its programmes can be more violent, more profane and can deal with more adult issues.

'Benchmark for quality'

The success of cable channels like HBO has not gone unnoticed on this side of the Atlantic, and some have suggested the BBC become more like it.

In a report commissioned by the Conservative Party, the Broadcasting Policy Group said earlier this year that the BBC should extend its subscription-funded programming into more creative areas.

"Today the benchmark for quality in sophisticated dramatic writing and innovation is being set by programmes such as The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under," the report states.

Angels in America (HBO)
Emma Thompson appeared in the Angels in America mini-series
It goes on to suggest that the BBC's relative under-performance is connected to "the way in which subscription revenues, in the UK, have not been allocated to the production of innovative new drama and comedy."

Ironically the BBC already has close ties to HBO, having collaborated with the channel on a number of high-profile TV films and miniseries.

Having co-funded World War II mini-series Band of Brothers and the historical dramas Conspiracy and The Gathering Storm, the organisations have been producing a multi-million pound 12-episode drama set in Ancient Rome.

The series, entitled Rome, follows HBO's mini-series Angels in America, which brought Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Al Pacino to the channel and won seven Emmys on Sunday night.

Audience share

HBO's proportion of the audience share is still relatively small compared to the bigger networks.

Crucially, though, its programming appeals to the 18 to 34 age bracket so valued by advertisers - making it the envy of rivals which depend on them.

The final episode of Sex and the City attracted 10.6 million viewers earlier this year, the channel's second highest audience rating.

Currently the pay cable network is seen in about 30% of the nation's TV-owning homes.

HBO's influence is also increasingly being felt in the cinema world.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
HBO co-funded indie hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding
From My Big Fat Greek Wedding to American Splendor, the channel has had a hand in some of the most successful "indie" films of recent years.

Indeed, industry newspaper Screen International has described HBO Films as "the beating heart of US independent cinema".

The HBO subsidiary recently made The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, a biopic of the British actor starring Geoffrey Rush and Charlize Theron.

Another HBO production, My House in Umbria, starring Maggie Smith and Ronnie Barker, will be in UK cinemas in November.

But perhaps HBO's biggest impact has been how it has reshaped the way new programmes are introduced to the American audience.

HBO has proved there is a huge demand for quality programming, and that viewers are prepared to pay extra for it.

The lesson has not been lost on the BBC. When the corporation launched The Office in the US, it opted not to sell it to a network, but decided to show it on its BBC America cable channel instead.

Record close for Sex and the City
25 Feb 04  |  TV and Radio
Angels in America's heavenly cast
06 Feb 04  |  TV and Radio
Sopranos star welcomes new series
09 Jan 04  |  TV and Radio
Epic Roman drama unveiled
27 Oct 03  |  TV and Radio

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