Time Magazine‘s TV and media critic James Poniewozik recently asked his blog audience if anyone was considering dumping HBO after June 10, following the series finale of its most-watched program, The Sopranos. While Poniewozik’s well-informed readers pondered the merits of Entourage, questioned the viability of pay cablenets in the face of on-demand and posited that the future of HBO would be determined by who was hired to replace ousted CEO Chris Albrecht, there was not one mention of the channel’s docs. But Lisa Heller, VP of documentary films for HBO, isn’t fazed. ‘We’re not naïve about our content in relationship to the fiction strands,’ she says, noting that the fiction series have been key in establishing HBO’s reputation as an outlet actively on the cutting edge of programming. ‘The Sopranos is a landmark series that points to HBO as a laboratory for experimenting with new forms and new talent, and pushing things in new ways. We see ourselves doing that in our genre and the mainstream series do it in their role.’
Ironically, the suggestion that the US pay channel’s value might be tied to single series comes on the heels of a stand-out year for HBO docs. Among the many titles, Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s exclusive, gritty Baghdad ER and James Longley’s poetic feature Iraq in Fragments earned considerable buzz for HBO: while Iraq took HBO to the Oscars, Baghdad was widely lauded by critics and garnered 3.5 million viewers when it aired in primetime on May 21. Friends of God, Alexandra Pelosi’s timely exploration of America’s evangelical Christian movement, had the nation atwitter after its main tour guide, Pastor Ted Haggard, became mired in a sex scandal shortly before the program aired, and Simon Ardizzone and Russell Michaels’ Hacking Democracy thrust the channel into the collective conscience when the Diebold Corporation, which makes electronic voting machines, tried to prevent HBO from airing the doc that exposes some startling security holes in America’s electronic voting system. (HBO aired the film shortly before the US mid-term elections in November and later posted it on Google Video for free.)
Heller says the HBO doc team – consisting of president of HBO Documentary Films, Sheila Nevins; VP of original programming, docs, Nancy Abraham; Heller, and other programmers – generally looks for topics and films that will strike an emotional cord with viewers, an admittedly subjective process. About once a year or so, the channel also chooses to air a pubic service-oriented program like this spring’s multi-platform effort Addiction. ‘It’s one of the things I have been most impressed with, coming from a public television sphere,’ says Heller. ‘That a corporate entity is willing to put resources behind that is exceptional and quite extraordinary.’
So what defines an HBO doc? ‘We try to take a story or issue that you’ve heard a lot about and that may even be on the news every day, and turn it upside down so it’s seen from a different perspective. Sending Spike Lee to talk to people in the Ninth Ward [for When the Levees Broke] offers a completely different picture from what’s been seen. That’s what makes it HBO,’ says Heller. Tony Soprano or no Tony Soprano.