World: Media Analysis - HBO set to storm Emmys with its hit dramas and comedies

Audiences and advertisers are flocking to the US giant's shows. Lucy Aitken reports.

Home Box Office, the US cable channel which introduced us to Carrie Bradshaw's eccentric wardrobe and Tony Soprano's two families, is preparing to clean up at the Emmys in Los Angeles on 19 September. The Time Warner-owned, subscription-led channel has received a staggering 124 nominations, trouncing America's more traditional networks NBC (64), CBS (44), ABC (33) and Fox (31).

The Sopranos, which has attracted 20 nominations this year, has been nominated for "most outstanding drama series" for the fifth time, and this year it is widely tipped to win. Robin Kent, the chairman and chief executive of Universal McCann in New York, is certainly cheering for it.

"The Sopranos is due this time; this last series has been superb," he says.

Even if it gets trumped by outsider Joan of Arcadia, The Sopranos is so highly rated that a recent Entertainment Weekly magazine poll among US "top TV insiders" saw The Sopranos named as the cable show they would most like to steal and put on their own networks.

The HBO mini-series Angels in America is also expected to do well. Twenty-one of HBO's Emmy nominations are for its adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, starring Meryl Streep and Al Pacino.

Kent thinks Curb Your Enthusiasm, a comedy series featuring the Seinfeld creator Larry David, also deserves an Emmy. "To me, Curb Your Enthusiasm is the funniest programme on TV. It'd be brilliant if that won," he enthuses.

Channel 4 has introduced the UK to HBO's flagship content, although it has normally acquired the shows via other networks such as Warner Brothers.

Jay Kandola, the head of acquired programming at Channel 4 and E4, admits that there is a special buzz when viewing an HBO show with acquisition potential. Why do HBO shows have that effect? "HBO has raised the bar in terms of quality. Making TV is a craft and people at HBO lovingly craft their programming," he says.

Kandola adds that the channel also works differently to the big networks, which spend millions on shows in development, with only a lucky few making it to pilot. HBO has only a small number of shows at a time in development. It also doesn't fall back on aping successful formulae from other channels. ABC's The Benefactor and Fox's The Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best have both been accused of ripping off NBC's hit The Apprentice. "HBO would just never do that," Kandola insists. "Its raison d'etre is to come up with unique concepts."

HBO is aided by its business model: the fact that it is driven by subscriptions rather than by advertising means that it can be a bit more risque with its content. Kent says: "HBO is commercial-free, so programmes run without interruption, giving them an advantage." He adds that channels which have bought HBO programming in the US, such as TBS's Mitsubishi-sponsored Sex and the City, subtly edit out the more explicit sex and swearing (ie. most scenes featuring Samantha) to make the show more palatable to middle America and, in turn, to their advertisers.

Media agencies have to track HBO hits with care in the US; there's little point in scheduling against The Sopranos on Sunday nights. But when HBO shows are licensed to other TV networks around the globe, they are freed up to carry advertising or sponsorship, and agencies love the 16 to 34 ABC1 demographic that the shows pull in. In Germany, Masterfoods is the rather unlikely exclusive advertiser in the middle of the Sex and the City double bill on ProSieben, while in France, fragrance brands such as Dior's Addict and Ultra violet by Paco Rabanne have sponsored the show. The French youth channel M6 broadcasts Sex and the City and Oz, HBO's prison drama, which is sponsored by the rock station Oui FM.

In the UK right now, HBO shows dominate billboards. Sky One starts broadcasting Deadwood, the Coors-sponsored Western drama series starring Ian McShane, on 21 September. Curb Your Enthusiasm is on Channel 4 and E4, alongside new series of Six Feet Under and The Sopranos. Meanwhile Carnivale, which follows the adventures of a Depression-era circus in America, has just launched in the UK on FX.

And US cable networks such as FX are beginning to give HBO a run for its money. FX, which was responsible for The Shield, is showing the second series of Nip/Tuck, and a brand new show, Rescue Me. Sponsored by Miller, the "dramedy" follows the fortunes of a New York fireman, played by Denis Leary, and the show is attracting both popular and critical acclaim, with the New York Post calling it "the best since The Sopranos".

But now The Sopranos is over in the US, how is a typical night's viewing on HBO? Kent thinks it has lost its fizz. "I'm TiVo'ing more FX than HBO," he says. "HBO could really struggle this autumn."

At least it's likely to have a few Emmys to ease the pain.


Sex and the City - The sixth season is repeated from 3 October on HBO.

The Sopranos - A final, sixth season of the mob drama begins production in 2005.

Six Feet Under - The third season of the funereal drama has just been screened on HBO.

Carnivale - Series one of the depression-era circus show is on air in the US.

Deadwood - The new Western drama debuts on Sky One on 21 September.

Curb Your Enthusiasm - The comedy of manners shoots a fifth season in 2005.

Oz - The fifth season of the prison drama is now airing on HBO.

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