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HBO and the Aristocracy of Contemporary TV Culture: affiliations and legitimatising television culture, post-2007

Kim Akass and Janet McCabe


The premiere US, pay-TV cable company HBO has done more than most to define what original programmingmight mean and look like in the contemporary TV age of international television flow, global media trends and filiations. This article adopts a cultural sociological approach to make sense of the structure of the cultural field in which the company operates, framed between ‘culture’ and the ‘market’, between exclusive, qualitatively distinct television content and corporate intent. It elaborates on the ways in which the company imposes a vision of an élite TV culture on the field, in and through producing distinct divisions ad infinitum, to validate the taste values of those who validate HBO. In creating incessant divisions in genre, authorship and aesthetics, HBO incorporates artistic norms and principles of evaluation and puts them into circulation as a succession of oppositions – oppositions that we will explore throughout this article.

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1In its institutional pledge, as Jeff Bewkes, former-CEO of HBO put it, to ‘produce bold, really distinctive television’ (quoted in LaBarre 90), the premiere US, pay-TV cable company HBO has done more than most to define what ‘original programming’ might mean and look like in the contemporary TV age of international television flow, global media trends and filiations. This article adopts a cultural sociological approach to make sense of the structure of the cultural field in which the company operates, framed between ‘culture’ and the ‘market’, between exclusive, qualitatively distinct television content and corporate intent. It elaborates on the ways in which the company imposes a vision of an élite TV culture on the field, in and through producing distinct divisions ad infinitum, to validate the taste values of those who validate HBO. In creating incessant divisions in genre, authorship and aesthetics, HBO incorporates artistic norms and principles of evaluation and puts them into circulation as a succession of oppositions – oppositions that we will explore throughout this paper. What we learn from HBO, in how it systematically sets about legitimatising a discourse of television distinction and prestige, is how the company functions as a site of cultural legitimisation. In so doing HBO structures a particular restricted field of cultural TV production, set against the mainstream network model – driven as it is by advertising revenue and ratings – which has, in turn, not only normalised what we’ve come to think of as important television work (critical acclaim, nominations and awards), but also kept these beliefs and practices of TV in circulation, with its syndication outlets and international branded premium channels (HBO Latin America, HBO Nordic), exclusive licensing deals (with Hulu in Japan, BSkyB in the United Kingdom), and other high profile ventures (HBO New York Latino Film Festival, HBO Bryant Park Film Festival) and delivery services (HBO Go, HBO HD, HBO NOW). Such thinking helps us explain how HBO has aligned its brand with already legitimated cultural forms to authenticate an institutional model of restricted cultural TV production; and this model makes sense of what they do and how they understand themselves and their field, as well as influences behaviours and thinking about how we consume and understand distinct and prestigious television in the post-network era. In sum, we want to “follow up” on what the legacy of HBO means for legitimatising contemporary television culture.

2 Central to the thesis is the idea of HBO as a recognisable brand with key characteristics of exclusivity and prestige, of representing a particular approach to TV style and aesthetics, narrative and storytelling, as well as a way of thinking about television as culture. Taking forward this idea of HBO as global brand, and understanding the implications of its transnational appeal beyond the United States, gives us the opportunity to speak to the themes of this special issue, to look at of what motivates re-makes and filiations at the level of ideas, and to examine how HBO bestows a sense of prestige, value and exclusivity on that endeavour. Our article sheds light on what the practices of the company can teach us about the complex interaction between television, culture and commerce; we aim to tease out their implications for the production of contemporary original serial drama and demonstrate how, in turn, the aesthetic style and storytelling practices developed at HBO, and the value placed on them, have been adapted in and through other TV institutional contexts across the globe. Rather than merely listing features of serial storytelling that could be defined as original and innovative, this article is concerned with searching out the very site of discourse – of power and knowledge – in which this kind of television is defined and made possible in the first place: in doing so we seek to develop a way of considering television as possessing a specific language, as it were; or to quote Michel Foucault, ‘the language that silently pre-exists within a discourse (2005, 87).

3 This article elaborates on the ways in which HBO adds value and functions as an influential site of cultural legitimisation in defining contemporary television seriality as art and ‘high’ culture. Key to our approach is the work of political sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984; 1993). Scholars working on the cultural legitimation of contemporary TV culture have frequently turned to him as an important critical source (Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, 2012, 6-11; Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, 2007; Jason Jacobs, 2001, 427-447), and in particular his concepts of ‘cultural’ and ‘symbolic’ capital (1984, 28-32, 53-58), to explain how in the case of HBO has, in the words of Christopher Anderson, ‘[cultivated] an aura of aesthetic distinction and [positioned] itself at the top of these hierarchies’(2008, 23-41; see also, Avi Santo 2008). Taking forward this idea of how HBO bestows a sense of prestige, value and exclusivity on its cultural enterprise, and mobilised by the membership of this field as well as contemporaries invested in this particular reading of it, this article sheds new light on what the sustained presence the company situated in its specific cultural field can teach us about the complex interaction between television, culture and the economics of TV – to tease out the implications for how the field of cultural production in which HBO operates has imposed a particular vision of television as culture in the contemporary age.

4 This understanding of HBO is set against an accelerated socio-political and economic climate of neo-liberal marketisation and cultures of globalisation where, since the late 1980s, TV markets have been increasingly de-regulated and technologies revolutionised flows of production, distribution and reception (see Lotz 2007a). Television screens have become wider, larger, flatter and HD. Through digital improvements, Video on Demand (VOD), TiVo, the DVD and box-set (of which HBO pioneered), streaming services, Internet TV, catch-up TV, downloads available through online retailers (iTunes), mobile operating systems (iOS) for so-called cord-cutting devices like smart-phones, the TV viewer has been remade within these technologies and the new technologies have, as argued by Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, allowed for new ways of consuming, watching and appreciating television (2007,100-127;129-152). If, as Bourdieu, writes, ‘A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which is encoded’ (1984, 2), then we would extend such thinking to an argument about how the technologies of HBO embeds its viewers into ways of thinking about television – of positionality and taste, of becoming discerning consumers of television culture (more of which later).

5 At this point it is worth pausing to take an ever so brief look at the history of HBO to see how, since its launch as one of the first non-terrestrial cable networks (and in 1975 the first to broadcast via satellite communications), it has been responsible for a number of television ‘firsts’. Across its history HBO has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of the medium – in terms of delivery, form and content – motivated by its economically precarious and, at times, institutionally marginal position in the US audiovisual media ecology. HBO started as a small enterprise situated on the very fringes of the US TV industry. Without much media fanfare HBO launched on 8 November 1972, with the 1971 film, Sometimes a Great Notion (dir. Paul Newman, 1970) starring Paul Newman and Henry Fonda, followed by a NHL hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Vancouver Canuck. Three hundred and sixty-five Service Electric subscribers in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania were the first to receive HBO (DeFino 2014). As of December 2013 HBO had an established 43 million domestic subscribers and by 2015 that figure had risen to 49million, which included users of its newly launched streaming service, HBO NOW (Statista). HBO has gone from a small, almost regional service in the northeastern and Mid-Atlantic area of the United States to become a truly global brand and an internationally networked owner-syndicator. It is in and through this sense of connectivity, connectedness and networking, of distribution and flows of TV seriality, that ideas about the production of taste and cultural value come into view; and this strategic accumulation of reputation and value can best be considered in terms of what Bourdieu calls ‘capital’.

6 In 1985, HBO became the first TV broadcaster to encrypt its signal to combat piracy. In establishing this pay-wall, the company set itself apart from the ordinary economics of the basic cable and free-to-air networks as a way of delivering a television not seen elsewhere. From the start, HBO placed a high premium on selling what it had to offer as something worth paying for each and every month; especially as at $15-20 per month (dependent on provider) it proved the most expensive. HBO thus actively created a sense of itself as an exclusive cultural domain, branding its original programming for those with discriminating taste; as Amanda Lotz put it, ‘HBO thrives by defying program standards that appeal to the mass audience, and succeeds by exploiting the limited access as a means of acceptance as high (or at least higher) elite art’ (2003, 66). In building its reputation through ‘limited access’ and ‘élite art’, HBO turned potential commercial liabilities – restricted availability, additional cost – into cultural and symbolic capital, as defined by Bourdieu. Until the mid-1990s, HBO busied itself establishing a coherent and highly visible brand identity, offering exclusive access to what could not be seen elsewhere on either free TV or basic cable (e.g. uncut first-run Hollywood movies, unique one-off sporting fixtures and cultural events). Post 1996 saw a shift, in part because HBO had established its brand, and in part because the TV landscape was changing with the proliferation of production and flow propelled by accelerated economic and technological forces (Strauhbaar 2007). Thus when Jeff Bewkes took over as president and CEO in 1995, he instituted a different concept of creative control, with the aim of creating a more intense, long lasting relationship between subscribers and the HBO brand in and through its production of original series.

7 With this new concept of creative control, HBO shifted from being a buyer of content to producing one-hour original scripted drama series, starting with Oz (1997-2003). Rather than relying solely on Hollywood or producing one-off TV events, such as boxing matches and comedy specials, to fill its schedules, this owner-syndicator as producer took responsibility for the production of series perceived to be of a different quality from the opposition and thus distinguished itself from its cable rivals. As it positioned its original series in the US market, HBO not only disseminated the idea of an exclusive viewing experience (a gated community through subscriptions), but also brought into play particular viewing protocols and ways of thinking about its series, which would enable and encourage the viewer to discriminate an HBO original from ordinary television. Central to its success in transforming the company from an occasional use channel into a truly cultural phenomenon was its audacious 1996 logo: ‘It’s Not TV. It’s HBO’. Bourdieu’s work on the sociology of taste and culture (1993) proves particularly helpful in explaining the ways in which HBO established its reputation as a market leader and tastemaker with its ‘originals’, legitimating difference and consecrating a sphere of restricted cultural production. So successful in fact that the brand speaks back to HBO, but significant still is how it’s spoken back by those with sufficient cultural and symbolic clout to make it count; said another way, HBO matters because it matters to those who matter. As Avi Santo put it, ‘promised by HBO via subscription is one that supposedly grants paying viewers membership in a distinct community that clearly ranks above the riffraff who watch the standard broadcast and cable stations’ (2008, 33).

8 Drawing on Bourdieu’s key concepts – field, capital and habitus – gives us a set of coordinates to initiate further debate into understanding how HBO functions as a site of cultural legitimisation in the contemporary television era. We start by looking at HBO’s position in what Bourdieu refers to as a ‘field of cultural production’, to understand the conditions under which its programmes are made. Next, we focus on ‘capital’, thinking about how value is bestowed, but also how the accumulated capital acts as a form of knowledge that authorises HBO as a purveyor of contemporary TV art. Finally, ‘habitus, which looks at a largely arbitrary set of unconscious arrangements of rules, norms and values governing the cultural consecration of HBO. In order to give a better focus to this argument, we will concentrate on the post-2007 era. In part, because the history of HBO until this point has been relatively well documented (see for example, Edgerton and Jones 2008; Leverette, Ott and Buckley, 2008; DeFino, 2014); but in part because the resignation of Chris Albrecht, following his arrest for assault (Steinberg, 2007), came at an uncertain time for HBO. The Sopranos (1999-2007) had ended and the new series like Rome (2005-6) hadn’t quite captured the imagination in the same way. It did for all intent and purpose appear as if HBO as a cultural force was at an end. Far from being in decline, and as we shall argue, HBO had built sufficient cultural and symbolic capital to remain a gatekeeper and tastemaker of contemporary TV culture. In the period following 2007 it has normalised ways of thinking about and practising what it means to be original in contemporary television seriality, and established its platforms as an alternative site for consuming that kind of television as art.

9 This leads to our first observation about the US TV industry, which represents a ‘field’ of cultural production with individual companies and networks sharing similar features, but also a shared set of values, rules and principles. Within this broader field, HBO represents a restricted small-scale cultural production. Of course HBO operates deep ‘inside’ power, as a subsidiary of the multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate, Time Warner, Inc, but even so the company has strategically positioned itself as a purveyor of TV creativity from within. From its miniseries like John Adams (2008) and Mildred Pierce (2011) to its latest dramas like Boardwalk Empire (2010-14), True Detective (2014- ), Game of Thrones (2011- ), Westworld (2016-), Big Little Lies (2017) and The Deuce (2017-), HBO advocates a notion of ‘high’ TV art by situating its original programming in relation to the other possibilities of television production of which it is part, while at the same reiterating what Bourdieu calls a ‘“charismatic” ideology’ (1993, 76). This is a belief in the value of the work as art, knowledge that functions to define the restricted field of cultural production, but also in the circulation of this kind of television as prestigious cultural commodity.

10 HBO is television realised under very different conditions from those of its commercial rivals. Its original series comprise of fewer episodes (13, as opposed to the 22 made for network), lasting a full-one hour (as opposed to 42mins, because of the need to accommodate commercials) and limited runs (as opposed to being extended and repeated across the network cycle); the originals air without being audience tested first and are initially only available via subscription, box set or streaming services such as HBO Now. Implanted in its original programming philosophy, and made intelligible in each series and repeated with every new one, is how HBO nurtures a particular idea of delivering television to its audience in opposition to the mainstream commercial TV. What the company does, in cultivating an appreciation for aesthetics and authorial intent, is in keeping with what Bourdieu refers to as an ‘autonomous artistic field’ (1993). It is able to conceive and bring into effect its own values and its own codes of legitimacy while at the same time repudiating outside sanctions and demands. It is imperative not to see these two subfields as somehow fixed categories – mainstream broadcast network television, restricted small-scale cultural TV production at HBO, but instead as elements in a sliding scale of cultural practice, distinguished by two hierarchical principles defining the struggle to take up a position within the cultural field of production: the autonomous principle for restricted production and the heteronomous principle for large-scale production.

11Modes of delivery have also changed in the post-2007 environment, with the move to new streaming services. Game of Thrones (2011- ) is arguably one of the most successful recent series coming out of the HBO stable, in part capitalising on the initial advantages of the innovative methods of delivery, using HBO Go, its VOD service, as well as the exclusive deal with companies like Sky Atlantic to air its series outside the United States. Game of Thrones first aired in the States on 17 April 2011 and one day later on Sky Atlantic in the United Kingdom. Here we can see not only how HBO makes use of originals to attract an audience for its new delivery service, but also how other channels adopt the HBO exclusivity as a way to boost their own reputation. What goes around comes around in the world of HBO originals and the premium cable channel has come full circle with its investment in series to increase audience share. Just eight months after the launch of HBO Now at the end of 2015 the streaming application was enjoying some 800,000 subscribers and by February 2017, ‘HBO Now had exceeded two million domestic subscribers’ (Alexander 2017). For Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes the economic value of the original series remains high as part of the reason ‘the network is seeing a consistent increase in subscriptions is because of original and exclusive series like Westworld and Game of Thrones’ (Alexander 2017). With HBO Now in direct competition with other streaming services like Netflix. Amazon Prime and Hulu, original series become ever more vital to attract subscribers, particularly when they are all pitched at about the same cost (between $14.99 [HBO], $7.99 [Netflix] a month or $75 [Amazon] a year) (Moylan 2015). It is at this point in technological developments that cultural capital begins to make economic sense and shows how HBO seeks to remain in the forefront of the television game.

12 As we have argued (McCabe and Akass 2008, 83-93; Akass and McCabe 2004), drawing on valorised literary and generic forms to distinguish its original dramas from regular television has long enabled HBO to position itself in its field and align originals with an already consecrated sphere of culture. Reputation is essential before a discourse of what constitutes innovation in television drama can be uttered and, more importantly, sanctioned and guaranteed. HBO might have told us that its originals are not television, but it does so predicated on what Bourdieu calls ‘capital’ to determine its status to make such a claim of artistic ambition in the first place. Accepting Bourdieu’s notion that every social agent is intent on assuming the best position possible for themselves in their field, it becomes apparent how HBO complies with the rules of the game and strives to accumulate what counts as legitimate capital in terms of prestige and recognition to advance its position. By moving television into this domain of the cultivated tastes HBO shifts its own originals up the cultural hierarchy, while leaving in place those very distinctions of worth and respectability that denigrate television as a medium in the first place.

13 Originality at HBO is closely aligned with the permission given to a writer to rupture established codes to produce an original tele-literary script. Emphasis is placed on an individual motivated by artistic intent and given a relatively generous degree of autonomy to tell stories in an innovative way, rather than as a member of the writer’s room, a traditional US TV practice where large teams prepare scripts subject to network oversight, FCC regulation and the demands of sponsors. Reliance on a single authorial vision finds HBO placing a high premium on the kind of authorship already consecrated elsewhere in the field: the author as ‘aesthetic experience’ (Bourdieu 1993, 219). Appreciation of the authored HBO original requires understanding of the subtle codes and rules required of commercial US television, a comparison that allows for HBO to reject the commercial TV norm and assert its unique willingness to accommodate talent.

14 This is not to suggest that the auteur guarantees the best television, but that the auteur as discourse carries important creative signification that helps establish the reputation for a show in particular, and bestow prestige on HBO more broadly – particularly at the company where series are promoted as originals. In analysing the structure of the social space in which ‘the “creative project” was formed’, Bourdieu thus offers us a framework for understanding how HBO revises the social definition of the bohemian artist, opposed to bourgeois norms and conventions, and ‘secure in their cultural capital and in their authority as arbiters of taste’ (1993, 193). Structured in this artistic field, the writer is located outside mainstream network practices and the demands to appeal to the largest possible market. The TV auteur at HBO is deemed as exceptionally gifted and, requiring protection for the artist’s particular sensitivities, is positioned as operating in a magical sphere that remains untouched by mundane, commercial concerns of US television. Note, for instance, how HBO waited for over a year for the storied mind of David Chase to find inspiration to write a third series of The Sopranos; or the mythology that swirls around David Milch and his creative (if flawed) genius. Known for his cerebral and unorthodox approach to scripting, for the profanity of his dialogue and precision of his plots, Milch is positioned at HBO as elevating the very possibilities of the medium in which he works – a reputation only enhanced by failed projects like John of Cincinnati (2007) and Luck (2011-12). The image of Milch as TV auteur thus occupies a particular position within the cultural space of HBO and, in turn, such writers makes visible the HBO ‘vocation’ (Bourdieu 1993, 195) of sponsoring original dramas that defy network convention; or as Nancy Franklin put it, ‘The person who creates a Deadwood is also probably going to make a John from Cincinnati one day’, only to add, ‘Networks don’t let that happen: HBO does’. (Franklin 2007). The principles behind HBO’s relationship with the author to define its enterprise for original drama are continually strengthened and reiterated by its investment in the author. Even clearer is the role of HBO, who literally ‘introduce’ the writer and their work into a select audience (through subscription and premium access), but continue to champion their discoveries with great conviction. David Simon maybe discovered with The Wire, but it is how HBO continues to invest their prestige in the writer’s cause that consecrates the work. In and through the commissioning of Treme (2010-2014), the miniseries, Show Me A Hero (2014) and more recently The Deuce (2017) HBO proclaims the value of the author they defend.

15 What made writers like Chase, Milch, Simon, as well as alumni like Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), appear so radically original, and their work of incomparable value, is their relationship with the critics and scholarly community, which instigates and sustains a favourable critical reception. For, as Bourdieu writes, ‘works of art exist as symbolic objects only if they are known and recognised, that is, socially instituted as works of art and received by spectators capable of knowing and recognising them as such’ (1993, 37). The role of the critic to decipher the meaning and value of the author at HBO not only speaks back to the brand, borrowing its language to communicate what makes original, but in return the promotion of authorship at HBO confirms the critic ‘in his vocation, that of privileged interpreter’ (Bourdieu 1993: 135). Note what the culture editor, Martin Chilton, at the Daily Telegraph had to say about the Boardwalk Empire finale.

Boardwalk Empire may not have gained the popular acclaim of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos but it is one of the most exceptional, multi-layered television dramas of the past 25 years.

16Eldorado [the final episode] was co-written by series creator Terence Winter (who is already working on a new show for HBO, set in the world of rock 'n' roll music in 1973) and Howard Korder, and directed by HBO veteran Tim Van Patten. How they oozed class. But what made the series such a success overall was that it was so intricate. It was always about more than just Prohibition and crime, and explored interesting areas such as politics, the war, women's rights and race relations in Twenties and Thirties America (2016).

17Evident in the above is the function of a ‘cultural editor’ to make personal judgements, to define the public meaning of the work, sanctioning it and placing it within a cultural hierarchy (‘one of the most exceptional, multi-layered television dramas of the past 25 years’). Developing criteria for evaluation (‘But what made the series such a success overall was that it was so intricate’) helps shows like Boardwalk Empire achieve cultural recognition amongst the peer group, ‘whose members are both privileged clients and competitors’ (Bourdieu 1993, 115). Boardwalk Empire ran for 5 seasons over a relatively short span of 4 years, but in that time the critical acclaim it received, principally for its lavish visual style and historical accuracy, saw the series receive 57 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, of which it won 20. This exceptional industry recognition further positions the audience within this relationship between the author, HBO and the critic, enabling viewers to interpret and appreciate the work and develop more refined preferences than those associated with more mainstream commercial television. ‘The work of art considered as a symbolic good (and not as an economic asset, which it may also be),’ wrote Bourdieu, ‘only exists as such for a person who has the means to appropriate it, or in other words, to decipher it’ (1993, 220).

18 The nature of the success of a programme like Boardwalk Empire leads to a greater understanding of the habitus in which HBO operates – not only as an important site of cultural legitimisation, but as gatekeeper and tastemaker in the field of contemporary TV cultural production. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, which understands the mostly unconscious ways in which people are socialised to think and behave, is particularly suited to making sense of what HBO post-2007 does and how it understands itself and its field. HBO has, for example, influenced the behaviour and attitude of TV creatives, in particular filmmakers, scriptwriters and actors. In its gatekeeper role HBO gives exposure (a scheduled slot to showcase talents), recognition (judged as worthy enough to be chosen) and ideally also prestige (selected for primetime slots and esteemed awards and honours). The image of HBO, in terms of the way in which it orientates its productions as distinct and original in the field, attracts those who are already established in a similar position in related fields. Martin Scorsese, associated with the American New Wave and an auteur deemed independent from Hollywood dominance, may have brought his reputation to HBO for reinventing the classic generic rules of the gangster genre when he came to direct the pilot of Boardwalk Empire, but conversely HBO is a place where creatives like Scorsese, but also Todd Haynes (Mildred Pierce), Jonathan Nolan (brother of film director Christopher), Lisa Joy and JJ Abrams (Westworld), acquire symbolic capital: prestige, honour and recognition.

19Time and again, filmmakers with indie credentials choose to come and work at HBO. Carey Fukunaga, with only two film credits to his name, Sin Nombre (2009) and Jane Eyre (2011), directed True Detective; and the limited series, Big Little Lies, saw Jean-Marc Vallée: The Young Victoria (2007) Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal (which opened the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival) directing all 7 episodes. HBO thus provides a framework for understanding this group of diverse group of creative. As critic Eric Deggans said of True Detective’s first season, it had ‘the feel of an indie film spread over eight episodes starring two of the best character actors [Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson] in the business.’ (January 2014). Within this space of cultural legitimisation HBO can bring another kind of recognition, as when Martin Scorsese won the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing in 2011 for the Boardwalk Empire Pilot. Similarly, with actors like Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), Paul Giamatti (John Adams), Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce), all of who have enjoyed critical acclaim and award-winning success at HBO. Put another way, these creatives share a certain cinephilic disposition with HBO and its field of cultural production (critics, industry professionals).

20 As a gatekeeper and tastemaker HBO has become one of the largest supporters of niche cultural film festivals, often community-based festivals tailored for specific communities (LGBT, racial and ethic-based festivals). These festivals are some of the most prominent advocates for the development and production of multicultural cinema, such as the American Black Film Festival (held in Miami during July), Philadelphia Asian Film Festival (October), NY International Latino Film Festival (considered one the top festivals for Latino filmmakers). HBO sponsors the Short Film Script Competition and the winner receives a production budget and licensing deal valued at $15,000, along with multiple screenings during the festival. Another festival is the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, where HBO is the awards sponsor for Best Narrative, Best Documentary and Best Short Film. Just as Marijke de Valck argues for how Bourdieuian concepts can explain ‘why festivals matter’ (2016: 112), then such an approach can help shed light on HBO’s role in the festival circuits of community, often grassroots film festivals, ones in particular that emphasis the identity politics of America – race and ethnicity, LGBT and Gay Rights. For filmmakers, an HBO Award offers industry credibility, with an opportunity to showcase their work on the premiere-pay network, revenue from award prizes and licensing deals to begin their next project, and direct access to acquisitions and development executives. Such a circuit not only addresses issues with socio-political relevance, but also are exactly the kinds of distinct, peripheral and controversial cultural products that find a home at HBO.

21 Argued here is that HBO is more than its original programming, but in understanding the field of cultural production in which it operates gives important insight into the dynamics between originality in seriality, taste-making and the circulation of ideas about television. This conceptualisation of HBO deals with the way it fosters ways of making and nurturing an appreciation about television, contributing to the largely unconscious function of rules, categories and values in television production. This article has made sense of what HBO does and how they understand themselves and their position within their field, as the company competes for, and takes up, positions, not only in and through the institutional structures of global television, but also the incorporated structures (the habitus), which allows them to participate in the first place. This position is ‘made’ and not ‘given’ and the precariousness of such a process is witnessed as in 2005 when TV professional and critics withdraw their support from HBO. Suffering fatigue and in the face of growing scepticism, the subsequent withdrawal of critical validation grave rise to a notion that HBO was in decline. Still, what we see post-2007 is how robust HBO is within its field, as it continues to function as an influential site of cultural legitimisation. Its cultural consecration continues to lend a commonsensical notion of what constitutes originality in contemporary television seriality – its aesthetic values, an autonomous and strong authorial voice, complex storyworlds, long narrative arcs and high production values, a set of arrangement held up by the beliefs and practices of the TV business, critics and audiences.


22Angels in America (2003)

23Big Little Lies (2016)

24Big Love (2006-2011)

25Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014)

26Deuce, The (2017-)

27Game of Thrones (2011- )

28John Adams (2008)

29John from Cincinatti (2007)

30Luck (2011-2012)

31Mildred Pierce (2011)

32Show Me A Hero (2015)

33Six Feet Under (2001-2005)

34Sopranos, The (1999-2007)

35Tanner on Tanner (HBO, 1988)

36Treme (2010-2014)

37True Detective (2014- )

38Wire, The (2002-2008)

39Westworld (2016- )

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Electronic reference

Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, HBO and the Aristocracy of Contemporary TV Culture: affiliations and legitimatising television culture, post-2007Mise au point [Online], 10 | 2018, Online since 15 January 2018, connection on 28 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Kim Akass

Kim Akass is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at the University of Hertfordshire and Leader of the Media Research Group. She is a co-founding editor of Critical Studies in Television, the managing editor of CSTonline and co-editor (with Janet McCabe) of the Reading Contemporary TV Series for I.B. Tauris. She has published widely on US TV series both with McCabe and sole authored journal articles and is currently working on the representation of motherhood on US TV.

Janet McCabe is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at Birkbeck, University of London. She is co-managing editor of Critical Studies in Television and has written widely on feminism and gendered representation, contemporary television cultures and TV seriality. She is author of The West Wing (2012) and co-edited (with Akass) several collections, including Reading Sex and the City (2004), Quality TV: Contemporary American TV and Beyond (2007) and TV’s Betty Goes Global: From Telenovela to International Brand (2013).

Janet McCabe

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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