Real life isn’t censored. It’s complicated, gritty, beautiful, perplexing, sad, and tragic at times. These things can’t be helped because we are living, breathing beings with strong emotions and feelings, and a desire to conquer and explore.
This isn’t to say all of life is R-rated. Plenty of it is as wonderful as George Bailey sharing a Shirley Temple with Shirley Temple. However, if we were to give life an honest movie rating, it would land somewhere between R and NC-17.
Honesty is the Best Policy
How have Showtime and HBO managed to string together one critically acclaimed show after another? How have they managed to continue winning the most prestigious awards in every relevant category? They depict life honestly.
Network television executives decided a long time ago that viewers of their content don’t want depressing endings, don’t want non-traditional families, and certainly don’t want situations that can’t be resolved within the timeline of the show. A shocking twist here, a saddening turn there (I am still an emotional wreck about Opie’s death on Sons of Anarchy), but more often than not favorite cast members on popular network television shows don’t die and the will-they-or-won’t-they couples end up together.
Premium channels have the freedom to take risks and give viewers a look into the realistic complexities of each character. Take Showtime’s House of Lies as an example. Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) and Monica Talbot (Dawn Olivieri) used to be married. Their son, Roscoe (Donis Leonard, Jr.), is an effeminate teenager doing his best to navigate through his youth. He often dresses in female clothing and is nearly always dressed in pastels, penny pushers, and scarves no matter what he’s wearing.
Marty and Monica do their best to understand him and give him the luxury of making his own choices without necessarily being thrilled about them. While a network show might treat the Roscoe character as more of a caricature, on Showtime he’s treated as a real person by divorced parents who are also doing their best to understand their son and treating him with the respect he deserves, while helping him face adversity without compromising who he is.
This is how things tend to play out in the real world, due primarily to the fact that we are real people with feelings and emotions and not just caricatures or stereotypes of real people.
Art Imitates Life
It’s hard to ignore this reality. It’s the simplest explanation for the success of original premium channel content. It’s also the reason network and cable television channels are flush with “reality” shows. They’re trying to compete with premium channels, but the playing field is hardly level.
Premium channels have a distinct advantage over network and cable channels in that they don’t have to censor their original content. Subscribers to premium channels pay a fee each month for the privilege of enjoying their offerings, and over the years have voiced their opinions about the type of content they desire. What we see on today’s premium channels is the result of years of costumer input, surveys, and interaction with premium channel executives.
Showtime just wrapped a very successful series, Weeds. Through eight seasons, viewers followed the exploits of the Botwin family who just happened to be knee-deep in the marijuana industry. No, not the quasi-legal medical marijuana industry, but the full-blown illegal industry of growing and selling weed as drug dealers.
The show was filled with drugs, and the anti-authority way of thinking permeated every character. There was plenty of violence and some of the characters were just stone-cold killers who only cared about the weed as a means to their source of income.
There’s no question that drug dealers and families like the Botwins exist and thrive in this country. However, this is just too complexfor a non-premium network to tackleand deliver a raw honest depiction of people, not stereotypes.
For Showtime to roll the dice on a series about dealing marijuana shows the confidence it has in its viewers to respond to subject matter that might be off-putting or against their beliefs, but they are still willing to give it a shot because they know it will be honestly and accurately portrayed.
It’s all in the Numbers
So, what about these ratings we hear so much about? Do they really matter? Are network ratings and premium channel ratings the same? In short, they do mean the same thing; no matter which program, on which channel or network is being rated. That is to say, for viewership purposes, a household is a household whether they’re watching a show on ABC or HBO.
Here’s the real difference. Networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC are available to every viewing household in America. It is estimated that 99 percent of households have at least one television. These networks are available to virtually every person in the country.
On the other hand, premium channels like HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax are in the homes of far fewer Americans. HBO enjoys 30 million subscribers; Showtime claims approximately 22 million; and Cinemax boasts 17 million subscribers. That means premium channels have a tenth or less the number of potential viewers compared to network television.
A popular show like Hawaii Five-O on CBS draws weekly numbers of nearly 13 million viewers. A popular show on HBO, like Game of Thrones, draws roughly nine million viewers each week. Fairly comparable numbers on the surface, but what’s missing in these figures is the size of the potential audience.
Hawaii Five-O has the potential of reaching more than 300 million viewers, compared to HBO’s 30 million. Any way you slice it, 13 million out of 300 million is a mere four percent. Nine million viewers out of 30 million is nearly one-third of all potential viewers tuned into a single program. In these terms, it’s a very impressive feat performed by premium channels.
In the end, it comes down to honest choices for viewers. Lena Dunham’s character Hannah in the HBO series Girls is a prime example. She’s frumpy, not particularly good looking, and has a soft, plump body that she frequently shows off in all its splendid glory. Does she fit the stereotype of the Hollywood starlet? Hardly, and yet in a show filled with unlikeable characters, we appreciate the fact that Dunham puts herself out there so completely and so fully that we can use her brutal honesty to make a lasting connection with her character on a very real and human level.
It’s about honest storytelling and the desires of a certain segment of the population to watch the unvarnished truth. For these viewers, nothing outside of real life compares to the experience of watching original premium channel content.