The ascension of the kings of television part two: The Sopranos ‘ruin Hollywood’

How did we get from BJ and the Bear to Breaking Bad? In the second part of his three-part series, Paul of Chin Stroker VS Punter continues his exploration of how the show-runner helped to pave the way for today’s golden TV age.

Miss part one? Check it out first here.

While audiences were slow to respond to the new style of drama that came with Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll’s Hill Street Blues, critical reception for the first season was overwhelmingly positive. The show garnered 21 Emmy nominations and, as its audience slowly grew, other quality dramas and comedies like St Elsewhere (1982-8) and Cheers (1982-93) NBC began to find similar popularity.

As the home of quality drama in the 1980s, NBC would also go on to revolutionise the way advertising and demographics were used. In 2009’s The American Television Industry, Micheal Curtin and Jane Shattuc explain: “Rather than gross ratings, NBC directed attention to the 18 – 49 demographic and promoted these ratings as the most significant indices in negotiations with advertisers. Executives argued that advertisers should pay attention to those segments of the audience that made the greatest proportion of purchases.”

Quality programming was attracting quality revenue streams and at the heart of all of the top-rated shows on NBC was the writer. Bochco would go on to co-create L.A. Law (1986–1994) for NBC, a series that was critically acclaimed and regularly achieved higher ratings than even Hill Street Blues. It could be argued Bochco’s dramas and their critical successes even had a direct effect across all TV genres. If you look at two of the 1990s most successful shows, The X-Files (1993-2002) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) they both contain a mix of ‘story arc’ and ‘monster of the week’ episodes that work to the established Hill Street Blues format.

The level of popularity that serial television gained in the 80s and 90s would lead premium cable networks to seek out new quality drama properties for themselves to compete with the commercial broadcast networks. During the 90s HBO was America’s leading premium cable channel, but the main bulk of their programming line-up was sport and movies. Due to deals with Warner Bros. and Tri-Star pictures, HBO had a thriving film production arm, but was investing very little in original television programming. The Larry Sanders Show (1992-98) was the HBO flagship show throughout the 90s and no other show came close to its popularity. Curtin and Shattuc add “HBO’s strategy was to draw elite or quality audiences willing to pay a fee for a premium service. As its subscription base grew in the 1990s so did HBOs interest in more expensive and provocative programming.”

HBO’s ‘golden years’ though, have very much come to be considered to be 1998-2007, beginning with the prison series Oz (1997-2003) followed by the comedy/drama show and cultural phenomenon that was Sex in the City (1998-2004). Then of course, there is the show that would become the flagship drama for the channel and help define television for many years to come, The Sopranos (1999-2007). Created by writer David Chase, The Sopranos was originally turned down by several networks before being picked up by HBO. While on the surface this was the story of the life and struggles of a modern day mob boss, Chase had also crafted a deeply meditative and multi-layered drama encompassing themes like class, capitalism, criminality and moral dilemma, as well as the failure of the American dream and the psychology of violence.

According to Glen Creeber in 2001’s The Television Genre Book, the series was “the richest and most compelling piece of television – no, of popular culture – that I’ve encountered in the past 20 years…a meditation on the nature of morality, the possibility of redemption, and the legacy of Freud.” And not only was the show popular with critics and the general public, it was helping HBO to cement its reputation as the home of quality, adult drama – with shows that all favoured the writer as their key driving force.

The Sopranos was a huge success story for HBO, attracting an audience of around 24m viewers at its peak and becoming known as ‘must-see television’ that would help drive subscriptions and become a part of the global culture conversation. It broke many of the traditions of television on the road to success, not least in its depiction of violence. Due to the lack of network restrictions, the show was free to depict graphic sex and violence as it saw fit. Inevitably, this may have been seen as key to its success in drawing audiences, but more importantly it allowed its creators to help illustrate the psychological complexity of the show. The rise and fall of Tony Soprano was a well told story, but by interweaving his criminal life with visits to a psychiatrist, it opened up the gangster stereotype to deconstruction. Often. the ‘why’ behind much of Tony’s violent lifestyle would be explored on the psychiatrists couch, creating a sense of psychological realism that might also be seen as a nod to the artistic cinema of Bergman and Fellini. In 2000, Chase himself spoke about the effect he believed network television was having on cinema too, seeming to suggest The Sopranos was his answer to the cookie cutter programming that had existed before it.

“I saw television take over cinema,” he said. “I saw TV executives move into movies. I saw the pandering, cheerleading, family entertainment shit dominate everything. Low attention span stuff. It all came from TV. TV ruined the movies.”

Read part three: Tough cops and even tougher cowboys