Friday, October 1, 2010

Guest Blogger Andrew Murphy Davis: THIS JUST IN: HBO Hates Money, Loves Multiplying by 1.5!

Andrew Murphy Davis is my best friend and aficionado of all forms of media.


As I sit here watching the Sopranos on A&E (at my parents’ house), I find myself less offended by the usual suspects (a preponderance of slipshod editing, bikini tops, and “bloodsuckers”), than by the original purveyor of this deservedly acclaimed series.

Fuck HBO. Fuck them. I’ve felt this way for quite some time, but with the premieres of Boardwalk Empire, Bored to Death, and Eastbound and Down (sit down and fucking watch it, Max) all aligned along a neat little hedgerow, it’s come to a head.

HBO has always been run by a bunch of pretentious cockbreaths, but their asshole tendencies have reached a fever pitch, which is to say that they’ve refined their dickwad practices to the point of art. Just as their showrunners (Simon, Chase, Milch, and others) have consistently raised the bar of a much-maligned medium, HBO has doggedly pursued excellence in the field of corporate arrogance and (as the French put it) “les doucherie."

Let me begin by saying that I will NEVER subscribe to HBO. I don’t even have basic cable, and I miss it like an acute anterior rash. But HBO is especially verboten for the following reasons:

1. Lifestyle porn (Sex and the City, Entourage), as a genre, is abhorrent, and I tend to avoid it.

2. No one can consider himself a man that says, "Sorry guys, I gotta go home and catch 'True Blood.'"

3. I highly doubt that anyone’s going to walk out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel and into my living room, poring over the minutiae of my home entertainment system and judging/murdering me accordingly.

4. One word: Netflix.

“But Andrew,” I can hear you saying, “for the same low monthly rate, you get Cinemax and its genre-slumming pals.” Turns out I don’t give a shit, because I can make a similar list... to the MAX:

  1. I’m not a particular fan of fake tits, dry humping, or synthesizer sax music, and also I know how the World Wide Web works, so Skinemax features hold little attraction for me.
  2. Watching "Alexander: the Final Cut" for a 15th time would be a tad excessive.
  3. “I really wanted to see Hancock at one of my five local multiplexes two summers ago, but there simply wasn’t time.”- This has never happened.

So it would behoove HBO to accept that they will never count me among their subscribers and start taking my money by other means. But they’re dicks, and being dicks matters more to them than making money. So here are the two main areas in which they have failed miserably at the deceptively simple practice of capitalism.


With the Eastbound and Down premiere approaching, I casually investigated the possibility of watching it the way I currently watch the best show that television has ever had to offer ever: Mad Men. I would buy an iTunes season pass and watch every episode on the Monday following the Sunday on which it aired. But this is implausibly impossible.

HBO clearly doesn’t want my money, because they don’t offer downloads of any current shows. No, after a season has finished its run and pirated/DVD versions have dispersed, only THEN shall it be available. Because everyone loves to pay $2.99 a pop (more on that later) for something they can get for free or get from Netflix and rip (which is to say nearly free).

Speaking of the pecuniary question, comments on the iTunes pages for HBO’s shows are dominated by this and similar statements:

Putting aside the utter ridiculousness of comparison between inconvenient pricing of a television show and the securing of goods and services by threat of physical force, AND the idea that iTunes was the entity that deemed an episode of Entourage 50% more valuable than an episode of Breaking Bad, $2.99 for a 50 minute download in standard definition is fucking asinine. The only logical explanation for a web non-strategy so idiotic is branding. In following it HBO positions itself as a hip, web 2.0, (meaningless buzzword)-type company while offering nothing that competes with their omnipresent DVD box sets. Speaking of which...

2. DVD's

So I love certain seasons of HBO shows, to the point where I might consider paying to have them in my home at all times- portable and ready to play, rain or shine anytime, anywhere. What’s the answer? DVD box sets! What’s stopping me? They suck rancid donkey balls.

After running through the complete Sopranos, Deadwood, Wire, Flight of the Conchords, and (sigh) Rome by means of Netflix, I am relatively qualified in diagnosing what pieces of shit these DVD’s are. Let us begin at the beginning.

Before EVERY SINGLE EPISODE of EVERY SINGLE SHOW, HBO reminds us who brought us what we’re about to enjoy:

Out of an ocean of snow/static arrives a monolithic logo set to an angelic chorus- as if God himself is smiling upon the entertainment to follow.

What level of insecurity drives someone to this kind of figurative/not-quite-as-figurative branding? Taking a red-hot “HBO” iron to the quivering forehead of an unsuspecting episode of hard-hitting drama just to let everyone know it’s yours? Great job letting everyone know what a tiny penis you have, HBO.

Now the meat of the episode- which is green, rotten, and ugly. Artificial grain, washed out color and aliasing artifacts are de rigueur in all of these series. DVD transfer is science, not art, HBO- you get what you pay for, so stop being such insufferable skinflints.

Another area in which HBO gets its shit handed to it is in disc efficiency. Notice how other 13-episode drama seasons come as a 4-disc set? That’s because at least four 50-minute episodes can fit on a single disc with minimal compromise of quality made in the compression. But HBO seasons (at least until recently) came as 6-disk sets. Is it because their content is 50% more valuable? No- it’s because they only put two or three episodes on a disc and give extras their own disc so they can mark the set up by (you guessed it) 50%.

And though some may think this is a minor concern, the lack of a “play all” button (anywhere, ever) is evidence of a serious corporate personality disorder. So you’re blowing through the (singular) Wire season 4 and don’t want to stop for breath? Too bad, because HBO considers television a discrete, quantized medium and will make you go back to the fucking menu and see their fucking logo every fucking time.


In fairness, none of this would be an issue if HBO didn’t produce some stellar content. If all it was capable of was entertaining trifles with above-average production values (Dexter, Weeds..-fuck it Showtime’s entire lineup), I could terminate our relationship with extreme prejudice. But I have decent taste, and they attract the talent. Thus, we arrive at an impasse.

HBO is aware of this, as their entire brand is based around challenging fare and creative freedom. But like all brands, at its heart lies a hypocrisy. Coca-Cola urges you to open happiness, rather than an ice cold can of sugar crashes, childhood obesity and sad Colombians. Nike has always associated itself with the purity of Primal Sport (“Africans Running,” as longtime CEO/chairman Phil Knight likes to call it), but what they sell is expensive body cargo that does nothing to improve performance or prevent injury. While HBO may sell itself as a salon extending complete freedom to creatives too edgy for networks or basic cable, and as a vendor for deeply personal, affecting material, it has what can only be called a compulsion to control every aspect of its consumption. Its end goal is for consumers to receive their content simultaneously and without intermediaries-by purchasing a monthly subscription. Nothing you want to watch this month? Fuck you, you’re getting it anyway. This archaic, purely hierarchical model of media distribution is antithetical to the progressive image they project. Absolute top-down control of the viewing experience also costs them money and is, therefore, anticapitalist, irrational, and perverse.

Plus, they passed on Mad Men. So fuck ‘em.

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