The Newsroom has been officially renewed for a third and final season by HBO, offering creator Aaron Sorkin a chance to wrap up all storylines. Or, at least, it would seem that way as the cable network breaks out of it’s own distribution system by cutting it’s life shorter than most of its offerings.
The lack of communication from the PR department could only mean the show had ran its course, as production on its new season would have to have gotten started by then. It was announced it would partner up with Boardwalk Empire in the Fall. However, this is a Summer show, specifically designed to be launched as such, and thus it get’s me thinking, is HBO slipping through the cracks with it’s first failed drama series? (Yes, there is Carnivàle as an exception, but its 2-Season long run was cut short due to high production costs).
This Emmy-winning series challenged reality as we know it via constant criticism of the government and news outlets through provocative political themes and complex characters. The series spoke to society through them, without patronizing it and refusing to talk down to its audience.
The Newsroom had a self-contained, unpredictable narrative structure. This shifted not only from the first season to the second but within episodes as well. All were tightly crafted, mind you, expertly executed from my point of view in which the way events unraveled was later connected by you, the viewer, the subscriber. The show gave the audience the power to put the pieces back together, providing evidence of what real news networks are unable to do.
Why, then, is HBO cutting its losses now after committing to a creatively challenged second season? The TV showed pulled narrative from real-world sources and as such was potentially content-rich for numerous seasons to come.
HBO and the Serious Drama Distribution System
HBO made a name for itself in the Television programming space after it successfully released Oz in 1997 and The Sopranos in 1999. This paved the way for quality televisual storytelling and HBO established itself as a content-driven cable network, producing bold, provocative and edgy television. The term serious drama, or serious television, could be attributed to the network’s first big successes. And this is where The Newsroom’s end makes me rethink their strategy, as this is essentially a cancellation and a business decision more than a chance to offer closure to the subscribers. Not having a proper ending to a serious drama this day and age makes the network seem sloppy and indecisive.
HBO employed a production mechanism in which series are picked up and released over the course of a season, ridding the network requirements of the pilot episode, the first 13-episode pickup, the back-9 and the additional script orders. Network television had a process: they gave the viewer a sample, if the viewer clicked, they would feed them more; if the viewer didn’t connect, the show was quickly terminated, sent to the TV Graveyard as the network counted it’s losses.
This kind of pressure was not employed by HBO, a methodology quickly adopted by other big Premium Cable networks like AMC and Showtime as they worked on a paid subscription basis: they bought in bulk, did their marketing research and deployed as they sought fit. The viewer turns into a client, a subscriber that had already invested economically onto an entire lifespan of a certain narrative. Moviegoers do not buy tickets only to have a film end halfway through the second act, and this is where cable series completely changed the TV landscape.
This new way of thinking legitimized the serious drama genre. These weren’t the glorified soap operas of the 90s but thriving, complex and complete worlds. Serious dramas gave the network confidence and transmitted it to its subscribers, as this was essentially unadulterated content (there was creative freedom, no input from adbuyers nor entities such as the church or government).
An even more recent example can be seen through Netflix, as their streaming original series Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards are made readily available to watch in bulk, all episodes of a season are released simultaneously, going a step further in proving they are confident in the choices they are making, proud of the content they have invested in. A whole product is sold and bought.
The Newsroom is being cut short. The fact that the show will be back on air during the fall of 2014 shows that it was a last minute decision and the investment in the characters and storylines was worth revisiting one more time to get it’s money’s worth. It’s a service to the subscribers, but makes for an odd choice that leaves HBO vulnerable to it’s own system. The Serious Drama system. If you look back at all the dramas the network has produced you will find that the investment is of at least four seasons, and a lot contribute to creative decisions to have endgames and properly conclude storylines, not for fear of cancellation but out of fear of over-extending the dramatic arc.
The intro sequence, on the other hand, was completely scrapped and made new for it’s second season. Again, going against the HBO rulebook in which the sequences remain the same throughout the seasons for all of its drama programming- except Game of Thrones, of course, which changes from episode to episode or the color palette of Girls, but the fundamental elements remain regardless. This is evidence of something broken, an attempt to patch something that was lacking from the beginning.
There may be more to this, as other sources discuss whether the involvement of the showrunner and/or series’ stars had impacted it in such manner but the result we receive, as clients and critics, is a shortened three season series that is a hit on the distribution system HBO consolidated.
All in all, this could be a chance to shake up the TV game once again. Could this be about the business or a more direct way to compete with streaming services original streaming content through a shortened serious drama format such as its new True Detective offering, an 8-episode anthology arc. On the other hand, is HBO trying to diversify its genre-based content to match its competitors?
Netflix has yet to make their move on the digital-only space, as it’s original programming is entering the sophomore stage of the TV lifecycle to further understand where its headed. This could certainly be a trend going forward, or exceptions to the rule for HBO to just sit back, cut its losses, and rethink its strategy.
Image Source: HBO The Newsroom Facebook