HBO gets real
Net enlists documentary doyenne to rule Sunday nights
By Deborah D. McAdams -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/28/2001 7:00:00 PM
With dozens of movie channels to compete with, HBO is turning to its master documentarian to further establish its identity as a premium channel and not just another pay movie network. With the return of The Sopranos this spring, HBO will turn to its executive vice president of programming, Sheila Nevins, to retain the record-breaking audiences mesmerized by thug life in Jersey. Nevins' monthly documentary franchise America Undercover will be stripped as a weekly series, and behind Sopranos no less.
" America Undercover has been a staple at HBO for 18 years. The series has a loyal audience and, now as weekly show, combined with TheSopranos, will create a solid block of original programming for HBO on Sunday nights," said President of Original Programming Chris Albrecht.
Putting America Undercover behind Sopranos is both a vote of confidence and a challenge for Nevins, who has pioneered documentaries for HBO for more than 21 years. Sopranos was the highest-rated program across all of cable last year, building to a 17.6 rating finale that comes second only to the April 1999 HBO premiere of Titanic as cable's most-watched show of any kind.
"Nobody in their right mind would try and compete with The Sopranos," Nevins said. "It's the Miss America of television. It's a big place to be, and we may pick up some audience, but we're not going to wear a bathing suit. I feel realistically pressured, but it's not related to Sopranos as much as my sense of perfection."
In moving America Undercover to a weekly hot spot, HBO takes another step away from its former dependence on movies-at a time when movies are choking the pipe. TV Guide lists nearly 100 movie titles available across expanded Comcast systems on one upcoming Sunday night, 22 on the basic networks alone. HBO has increasingly turned to originals to stand apart from the crowd, but America Undercover has remained tucked into fringe or late-night time slots, mostly because of its unrelenting content. The Nevins touch ranges from a crawl through the strip clubs of Atlanta to the story of a 10-year-old cancer survivor who wrote a book about his experience. In the Nevins regime, reality TV means unflinching and personal explorations of hate, AIDS, alcoholism in families, disabilities, sex, work, poverty and people's lives.
"If someone runs into a tree, we don't cut to the EMS," she mused about HBO's un-self-conscious documentary style. "We stay with the tree."
Shows like Sex and the City, The Sopranos and the brutal prison series Oz have paved a path to prime time for the blunt-force topics of America Undercover.
America Undercover is actually a catch-all anthology. Some of the episodes are self-contained, like the April 22 installment about a filmmaker's incestuous grandfather. Others come under the domain of Autopsy and Taxicab Confessions, two franchises that drew ratings between 5s and 7s on the fringe of prime time last year-enough to put them among the 100 top-rated cable shows for 2000.
HBO will maintain the usual production pace of 12 to 15 documentaries a year. Any more than that would diminish the quality, Nevins said. Budgets will remain the same as well-anywhere from $50,000 to $1.5 million per film. The main goal for America Undercover is the exposure and, for HBO, whether real reality shows can pull in people in the manner of the contrived reality shows coursing over the broadcast networks. America Undercover debuts as a weekly series Sunday, March 11, at 10 p.m. with Dead Men Talking: An Autopsy Special in which forensic scientists ferret out clues from corpses.
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