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Putting the Big "O" in HBO

If you think long and hard about it -- and believe me, I have -- it's no wonder postal workers are offing each other with the extreme prejudice heretofore reserved for guests of Jenny Jones. Already worked into a fine pique over having to haul around meat dehydrators, Sweepstakes letters from Ed McMahon and whatever multi-cassette self-help package Tony Robbins is currently hawking, mail carriers now face the prospect of lugging bloated, spine-crushing copies of TV Guide.

And that's enough to drive anyone to kill.

Why the extra-thick TV Guides? Because new stations are constantly jockeying for space on our cable systems. And soon, yet another new network will launch in the rarefied air of broadcast TV, sucking the wake of fledglings WB and UPN.

Yes, our viewing choices are many and varied, which, last time I checked, did not always equal "good." For every old favorite like AMC there's an upstart dog and pony show like Animal Planet. Nickelodeon touched a cultural nerve with Nick at Nite and its spin-off, TV Land, proving that people want to see a healthy dose of quality reruns. Of course, this in turn begat the horror that is The Game Show Network, proving that people also want to see a healthy dose of hapless contestants trying to peer into the tortured psyche of Charles Nelson Reilly so they can win a toaster.

Television being the competitive industry that it is, some of these nascent networks will survive and some will not. But what they will all do is force the existing ones to get with the program and appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to survive. After all, when CNN proved to be a news powerhouse and not just the deranged fantasy of a loony Southern billionaire, did local stations counter with equally hard-hitting stories and in-depth reports? Of course not -- they turned tail and ran in the other direction, hiking up their proverbial skirts along the way to aid their momentum as they gave us all a free show.

Now, broadcast stations may offer the occasional risque expose on some sordid side of life or a partial glimpse of Jimmy Smits' ass, but when push comes to shove, the networks simply aren't afforded the same luxuries as premium pay channels in their bid to give the people a healthy dose of what they want.

Those luxuries, of course, would be 1) nudity and 2) lots of it.

Take HBO. The network has always prided itself on its original programming, and rightly so. This year alone has seen the awe-inspiring miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, the return of smart talk shows like The Chris Rock Show and Dennis Miller Live, and the brilliant final season of The Larry Sanders Show.

Of course, HBO has always had its bawdy side, too. Witness the '80s football-themed, breast-laden comedy First and Ten, a show that also held the distinction of introducing America to a svelte beauty named Delta Burke.


Or Dream On, an offering from the team that went on to create Friends that featured, in some detail, the exploits of a lead character who got laid more often than all six of the Friends combined. Including Joey.

All of this was good, if not immaculately clean, fun. But lately, HBO has been bearing an uncanny family resemblance to its slutty younger sister, Cinemax.

It first tested the dank waters a few years back with a special -- and now a periodic series -- called Real Sex, which purported to blow the lid off of the country's sexual mores, showing us all of the twisted perversions that average workaday stiffs, possibly even our neighbors, were up to behind closed doors.

And people, it's good stuff.

If you're amazed at the kinds of activities that human beings allow themselves to be photographed talking about or committing on Jerry Springer or Cops, rest assured, they're doing it nude over on HBO. Groups. Fetishes. More clinging leather than even Joel Schumacher would know what to do with. You get the picture.

But in case you don't, the channel has also given birth to Sex Bytes, which, near as I can tell, is exactly the same show, only with some tangential allusion to cyberspace thrown in like, oh I don't know, maybe the fetishists bought their leather online.

HBO's strangest show has to be Turn-on TV, an amalgam of other countries' sexually oriented TV programs. In other words, you're being charged to watch stuff they're showing for free halfway around the world.

Nothing gets the old fire going quite like a group of nude, elderly Brits sitting cross-legged on the floor in a freestyle talk show. Or footage of an elderly tribesman in some remote country or other, displaying what one can only assume was some sort of painful fertility rite, his nether regions coiled around a large stick as they were. Or a group of elderly Swedes, frolicking happily on a naked game show.

All right, the Swedes were still pretty damn attractive.

HBO is also particularly partial to hidden camera shows. Taxicab Confessions, for example, where cabs are outfitted with several hidden, miniature video cameras and its driver is relieved of the nuisance of keeping his eyes on the road while he either eggs his chatty customers on to make themselves, ahem, more comfortable, or somehow coaxes from them seemingly every private thought they have ever had.

Now, I've been in a few cabs in my day, and, aside from announcing my desired destination and settling my fare, most of my conversations have consisted of exactly one sentence: "Do you mind if I roll this down?" And if I am denied, then and only then do I remove my pants.

Not these folks, though, none of whom are aware they're being filmed until after their joy ride, at which point they sign a release giving HBO the right to show them humiliating themselves over and over. Crimes are admitted. Violence is planned. Breakdowns are suffered. And of course, sex is had. It's like an episode of NYPD Blue if it took place in Sipowicz's unkempt car.

Similar in tone is the subtly named Hookers at the Point, the latter part of the title referring to a geographical locale, thank God. Here, a man lurks in the shadows tailing streetwalkers as they ply their trade. You know, like a crazed stalker. Only this guy's packing a camera instead of a bowie knife, so we at home are privy to the complex inner workings of the prostitute-john relationship, from negotiation through consummation. We're also treated to a bit of the down time, snatching a glimpse into the mysterious underbelly of off-duty street whoredom.

Guess what? It's seedy!

And so, increasingly, is HBO. Because sex, buttressed by repeated showings of "Independence Day" and Garth Brooks specials, is how the channel will remain on top of the pay-cable spectrum.

It's simply a matter of giving the people a healthy dose of what they want.


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