HBO and American Gods Need Each Other
About 30 minutes into the Starz’ new prestige drama, American Gods, I found myself thinking, “Why would HBO would ever pass on this?” HBO’s success and failure in the drama department have been equally overstated and understated depending on who you’re talking to and which point they want to make. It is true that shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld have papered over the cracks by being sheer juggernauts of popularity. But also people forget how beloved True Detective season 1 was because of recency bias; and even I—the staunchest critic of The Leftover season 1—have to admit that seasons 2 & 3 have been great. All that said, HBO could have definitely used this show. Game of Thrones will draw to a close sooner than any of us would like, The Leftovers is officially wrapped, and Westworld and True Detective have been delayed quite a bit—who knows when they will come back and at what quality. A lot of what has worked for HBO lately has been an incredible run of miniseries: The Night Of, The Young Pope, Big Little Lies, and Show Me a Hero. I even enjoyed The Casual Vacancy. I am not trying to suggest by any means that HBO is in a lull quality-wise; in fact HBO is probably at the best it’s been since the mid-2000s. (Can we all just take a second and realize that from 2004-2006 HBO had Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome, and Extras on their schedule at the same time—four of the probably 15-20 best shows in the history of television… and Rome.)
There are a lot of reasons that HBO doesn’t have the monopolistic grip on prestige television it once had and none of those reasons are because of a lack of quality on HBO’s behalf. The biggest factor is that there are just more players in the prestige television game. Some of who are more desirable to certain showrunners than HBO. Even just as recently as five years ago American Gods would have been on HBO; there were just no other options for a show like this. Five years ago you could have gotten a decent check from Showtime if HBO told you no thanks on your hour long drama (though there’s a reason that the best thing that network has ever put out is two seasons of Penny Dreadful and 3 seasons of Masters of Sex by a very wide margin). Today the blank check machines of Netflix and Amazon have wrought much change. Not to mention that everyone and their mother is in the business of original scripted content. Did you know, 1, there was a National Geographic channel and that, 2, it has an Einstein biopic series called Genius on right now? You really shouldn’t have, only degenerates like me hear about this stuff. But the truth is there isn’t an easier time to get your script produced than 2017. The need for shows might actually exceed the capacity of show creators have been able to produce. Today, if you have a show like American Gods you have many options other than just HBO: Amazon, Netflix, FX, AMC, and Hulu and that’s only if you care about your show getting seen. If you’re unconcerned with viewership numbers there are even more options like Sundance, Pivot (R.I.P.), Cinemax, IFC, and now I guess Starz too. Yet the new competition hasn’t really hurt HBO’s bottom line as much as the “HBO has a drama problem” camp would have you believe.
HBO is still the king, as much as I tout the success FX (who I think is the best content creator in the business) the numbers just don’t lie whatever HBO touches turns to gold. Or is at least elevated to new heights. Game of Thrones is the biggest show of all time, so it’s hard to say that HBO drastically improves upon its quality or popularity but Westworld is a perfect example of what HBO can do. Is there any way it’s very very average first season generates as much conversation as it did if it’s on any other channel? Even Showtime, even Netflix whose all at once model has been a conversation killer for even its best shows. American Gods has been superb; but not only has it been superb it has been very HBO-esque. This first season feels a lot like the first season of Game of Thrones which is some of the highest praise I can give. The conversation that has been cycling around the show in its early episodes is about the tits and the dicks and the violence much like the first season of Thrones. But actually the reason to watch this show is not that a woman eats a man with her vagina, despite what the internet might tell you. The show has some of the best performances on TV at the moment. I pray week after week that Orlando Jones reprises his role as Anasi as it was maybe the best 10 minutes the show has had all season, that and the opening to episode 5. The story is obviously incredible, for those of you that have read American Gods you know how amazing it is, for those that haven’t, trust us Neil Gaiman is as much a genius as we all say he is. The show has found actually a pretty big following on Starz—I believe—I’m going off the conversation index i.e., how many conversations people start with me “the TV guy” about a show. I have zero conversations a day about The Americans which makes me think it’s pretty unpopular despite how great this season has been. While when Thrones and Westworld were on it was a few conversations a day or at the moment Twin Peaks which will probably average out to .25 conversations a day or something. It’s not a perfect system but I don’t know how much I trust ratings in 2017 to tell me who is watching a show, especially on a smaller premium channel like Starz. Even if the Starz executives don’t care about the thieving free loaders that are watching their show illegally, I do. But even though this show has a small cultish following, one that seems to be mostly made up of book readers, it needs HBO. A show this good and this accessible—yes, accessible, while we are not talking about How I Met Your Mother, a show so simple the entire 45 seasons could be summed up in its title we are also not talking about something like The Knick either which was almost solely made for film and TV nerds by a film and TV nerd. But honestly, a show this good show be as popular as Game of Thrones and I don’t know if being on HBO would have automatically guaranteed that, but it couldn’t have hurt its chances.
HBO is definitely the king and it can propel a show (cough Ballers cough); there are those that will tell you that HBO has had a drama problem in recent years. And while they are not entirely correct, they might not be entirely wrong either. As content begins to spread out and everything is moving closer and closer to over-the-top, you need to be indispensable not just successful. Let’s talk about the looming boogey man—over-the-top television. Petrifying if you’re a cable provider—but fuck those guys—if you’re a consumer it’s either good news or bad, depending on how exactly you handle the paralysis of choice. Unfortunately this is going to require a modicum of math so bear with me:
Firstly, for the uninitiated, what is “over-the-top?” In the simplest of terms, over-the-top refers to getting your TV from any source that isn’t through a cable package. There are a few providers that already offer consumers an over-the-top option: HBO with HBO Now, Showtime, and recently Starz added their own direct subscription options. There are exclusively over-the-top providers: Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon are among the biggest and more are popping up every day including providers like Crackle and NBC’s Seeso. So far it’s just the premium channels and of course the Netflixs of the world but theoretically this is our TV future. There are hints that even the perpetually outdated network channels are thinking about the future evidenced by CBS’s online play, All Access, which still has some exclusive content in the form of a The Good Wife spinoff.
Why is this relevant to American Gods and HBO and the HBO drama problem? Right now everyone with a cable subscription has generally the same channels, give or take a few premium channel add-ons. You might not turn on BBC America or Spike because maybe you don’t watch Doctor Who or Adam Carolla and His Other Racist Friends Build Stuff—but you could. And you could watch them whenever you want because you’re paying for them. Some piece of the money you give to your cable company, or satellite company, or whatever that thing is that AT&T started doing goes to BBC America, Spike, the Food Network, TLC, Bravo, Discovery, Syfy (yes even Syfy), etc. even if you only have cable so you can watch MTV original programming like My Step-Uncle Impregnated Me and The Real Word: Kerney, NE. But once over-the-top hits, you will be able—or have to—pick and choose exactly which channels you have access to.
Right now you can get the channels and online providers for about an average of $12 per month and the average cable bill in America is about $100. Most people want to cut their cable bill, still for the sake of argument let’s say the average consumer would allot for 8 channels in this model, or $96. Though most people interested in the inside baseball of TV have made this into a discussion of whether a channel is worth the $10-$15 dollars, that’s not an accurate representation of what is happening. I would argue there are few channels on TV that aren’t worth at least $10; even AMC. Sure The Walking Dead, Fear of the Walking Dead, Turn, Better Call Saul, and Into the Badlands starring budget Donnie Yen are not worth even a single dollar but Preacher is worth $10 a month at least and then of course Halt and Catch Fire is a nice bonus. The conversation should be, are you worth 1/8th of my monthly TV budget or even 1/10th of it. And the answer is still no for the vast majority channels out there even with this influx of new content.
American Gods has been excellent through five episodes and with the sixth episode airing tonight I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon. I was worried coming into this show as American Gods is one of my favorite books, if not the favorite, and I’ve been burned before. Even though I may have a nostalgic attachment to the Harry Potter movies… and Emma Watson, the movies really don’t do the books justice. Same with the second and third Hobbit movies. And the most painful screen treatment of the bunch, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—mostly because it’s actually Douglas Adam’s fault the movie was so shit—seeing as he wrote the fucking screenplay. But apart from some to-be-expected stretching of the Queen of Sheba storyline, the American Gods show has not only been faithful to the book, it has added much without feeling like it’s selling out its source material. The Laura episode was fantastic and one of my favorites so far this season. The episode took little asides from the book and turned them into one of the best hours of television thus far this year.
But why does HBO need this show? They still have one of the most lauded lineups television. I’m not sure having two or three great cultural touchstone shows a year will be enough to overcome over-the-top. Think about Netflix. Most people don’t count any Netflix show among their favorites; and it’s been a long time since they’ve had a critical hit for an original series. Netflix succeeds by sheer volume. Even if you don’t like 90% of the shrapnel they throw out you’ll probably enjoy at the very least one release a month. There were 84 offerings added to Netflix in the last week, most third-party content but some original as well. That’s how providers will succeed in the over-the-top format. They understand better than channels like HBO, FX, or BBC America you have to be constantly producing month-to-month if you are going to keep costumers coming back.
American Gods is not only exemplary, it is absolutely on brand for HBO. As such – and given how sparse HBO’s yearly schedule can be — it is likely we will look back on American Gods as a big miss for HBO.