HBO Shows that Brought Home Peabodys
Matt Shedd - 8/13/2014
The origin of our current era of prestige television couldn’t be written without a huge section devoted to HBO.
Officially launched in 1972, HBO is the oldest pay-TV service in the game, but it would be 13 years after its inception before the channel brought home a Peabody for an original series. This was still long before its heyday, starting in the late 1990s, when it became clear that HBO was the place for writers to tell the stories they wanted to tell, without interference from advertisers or overly cautious executives.
To paraphrase David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, it wasn’t the freedom for transgressive content like nudity, violence and swearing that really made a difference. Rather, it was the liberty to tell stories in a different, slower and less restricted way that changed everything.
The most popular development strategy in show business is imitation. When HBO’s risky transition into complex storytelling proved to be financially successful, it wasn’t long before other networks started building shows around more realistic characters as well. And it hasn’t just been pay cable channels such as Showtime and Starz, but also networks with advertisers to worry about. AMC and FX, for example, were encouraged to be more daring. Even the major broadcast networks, the most beholden to the forces of censorship, have felt some of the spillover from the burst of creativity that first found its full expression on HBO (see CBS’s The Good Wife and the late, great Friday Night Lights that originated on NBC).
If you’re interested in learning more about how our current era of television came to be, particularly in the hour-long drama format, I highly recommend Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men - Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad. As thoroughly researched as it is readable, this overview of what Martin coins as “the third golden age of television” will certainly be a staple in media studies classrooms for years to come. (Link: http://brettmartin.org/)
We’ve watched HBO try on lots of different approaches in its original programming since the channel first started. In this blog series, we will look at several examples throughout the network’s history, where creators used the freedom they had at HBO to create shows unlike anything else on TV.
Let’s start with the first Peabody winner from HBO, 1985’s Braingames.
The HBO brand is now often associated with the hour-long drama series. But before any of the network’s gangsters, morticians, cops or cowboys started breaking down genres, HBO brought home its first Peabody Award for a unique educational program.
Braingames was a game show in which the viewer was the participant. Using stop-motion animation and cartoons, the show quizzed the at-home audience of adults and children in a series of brain teasers. Interestingly, the show was produced by Spinning Reels, a production company run by Sheila Nevins, who would go on to become an instrumental figure in HBO’s rise to prominence, particularly in the field of documentaries. (Nevins now holds the title of President of Documentary Films at HBO.)
Below is a clip from Braingames that the Peabody Board praised as “an educational program that captures the attention of children and rewards them with improved conceptual skills at the same time.”