HBO's Historical Revisionism

Congratulations to Game of Thrones and its infinitely frustrating creator: The show is now the “most popular series in HBO’s history.” That’s an average audience 18.4 million compared to 18.2 for The Sopranos.

Speaking of history! HBO has a strange sense of its own. The network has, for the last ten years, minimized its pre-Sopranos existence as much as possible, full as it was with late night softcore porn and of-the-moment comedy specials. Now, with HBO Go, the company has been given a chance to fully rewrite its story, and it has taken it: The “All Series” section of HBO Go presents what looks and feels like an exhaustive look back at HBO’s original programming history (Little Britain USA is right there next to The Wire). The popular series you’re looking for is probably there. There’s porn and boxing and documentaries and children’s programming. The network’s rotating lineup of movies gets a section, as does HBO Latino.

But “All Series” does not mean “All Series,” or anything close. The further back you go, the thinner things get relative to HBO’s actual catalog, until there’s almost nothing at all (there seems to be an unofficial soft cutoff at about… Oz). This is intuitive enough: Potential viewership for 1st & Ten is low, and rights issues seem like they would be more complicated over time—I mean, I don’t know, if some HBO executive said these things to me I would think, ok, sure, that explains why there’s no Tales From The Crypt on my Apple TV. But a lot of the network’s older shows are genuinely interesting, both as entertainment and as curiosities. I’d love to revisit Tanner ’88, maybe, for an episode or two! (I suppose I can, but only on Hulu Plus or DVD.) I would also like to take a look at Dream On, the show that gave us the ubiquitous HBO static intro. The Larry Sanders Show certainly holds up well: I know because I watched the entire thing on Netflix, from which it has since been removed, and then began watching it again on Amazon before it was removed from that, too. Amazon recently inked a fresh deal with HBO, which seems to mirror HBO Go’s content, but which does not include Larry Sanders. Garry Shandling has been written out of HBO’s past.

And what about Mr. Show? Here’s what its creators said about the show’s exclusion from Go in a q&a last year:

(Bob here) HBO has a hate-hate relationship with the show.
(Brian here) They are not aware that we did the show.
(David, back) They hate having to google Mr. Show.

A legitimate cult classic! But again, these are shows from the before times, pre-David Chase and prior to cable’s prestige programming rush. It is not unusual for old shows from any network to be sent to the licensing and syndication glue factory for processing and extraction. HBO’s treatment of more recent shows, however, is outright revisionist. Luck, which was available as it was airing on HBO Go, has been removed. There’s no John From Cincinnati (though David Milch can still revisit old episodes of Deadwood, if he wants). Funny or Die Presents has been pulled, as has The Life and Times of Tim. HBO is actively curating Go like some sort of premium cable dating profile: Carnivale wasn’t there and then it was; In Treatment just showed up one day, mysteriously, just like Tell Me You Love Me. Pulled shows exist in HBO Go’s search results, but any attempt to watch them returns an “Unknown Error.”

This is always what happens when data gets vacuumed up into some new app or service, even the ones that imply completeness; Google does not actually “organize the world’s information;” Wikipedia is a great summary of information about the world that was already on the internet; Spotify and iTunes are staggering resources with no deliberate sense of history or context. The Kindle library is arbitrarily selective but purports, or at least feigns, to serve as the be-all, end-all of words on pages.

But HBO can do whatever it wants, all it has to do is digitize and host its own shows. It’s a TV network’s job to figure out what to write out of its future, not what to delete from its past. Give us the bad stuff with the good! HBO, own your turds! They’re better than most of what’s on Netflix, anyway, and I’m getting tired of clicking.