HBO’s new owner sees tremendous profit opportunities in the network. That’s bad news for anyone who likes good TV.
Bulletinis a chronicle of socialist comment and analysis from Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman.
Things Capitalism Fucks up — Today’s Installment: TV
This week, the New York Times had a juicy media story about HBO, which, thanks to a recent merger, is now a division of the faceless corporate borg known as AT&T. Times media reporters Edmund Lee and John Koblin got their hands on a leaked recording of a company “town hall meeting,” which featured a clenched, faux-friendly chat between longtime HBO chief Richard Plepler and AT&T executive John Stankey, Plepler’s new boss and frenemy.
The Times played the story as a personality conflict: Plepler, tan and dapper, is a doyen of Manhattan’s cultural elite. Stankey is a pasty Republican telecom exec who lives in Dallas. It’s basically Kabletown vs. 30 Rock, only nastier.
As a sworn enemy of prestige TV — I fully endorse Matt Christman’s righteous rant on this subject — I won’t eulogize HBO. But the fact is that it has shown a consistent willingness to spend money to produce content that isn’t total crap, and in particular, it’s created some great classics of modern comedy, including The Comeback and the Larry Sanders Show.
As Lee and Koblin put it:
But capitalism has ways of rooting out such anomalies, and the recent AT&T-Time Warner merger looks set to do the trick. “During the town hall meeting,” the Times reports, “Mr. Stankey said HBO should consider trying something new.”
That sounds like a recipe for high-quality entertainment, doesn’t it?
Note that the issue here isn’t one of a noble but money-losing company succumbing to the inevitable and getting restructured as part of a rescue operation. HBO makes money — just not enough for hungry wealth owners. I found this passive aggressive little colloquy revealing:
I wish Plepler luck in extracting investment dollars from his overlords in Dallas. But AT&T’s track record is hardly encouraging. Over the past three years, the company has paid out a staggering $46 billion to its shareholders. In that same period its net investment has actually been negative — its capital expenditures have consistently fallen short of depreciation.
But what’s the socialist solution? Surely, we wouldn’t want a world of gray, lifeless, state-owned TV — like, say, the BBC, with its Monty Python, The Office, or Fawlty Towers. We might as well be living in North Korea.
The Red and the Black, Take Two
Last May, a newly formed alliance between Iraq’s venerable Communist Party (ICP) — one of my all-time favorites, right up there with Italy’s — and followers of the populist Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr finished first in Iraq’s parliamentary elections.
Although Shi’ite Islamism and leftist politics have a long a history of cross-fertilization in Iraq, the Sadrist-ICP alliance came as a surprise to many. (Note that the ICP’s position in the government has been left more uncertain after a subsequent deal with a pro-Iranian faction.)
But according to Benedict Robin, an academic at the University of Edinburgh, the alliance’s most recent iteration has surprisingly deep roots.
In 2015, when I began researching Sadrist-leftist cooperation, I was struck by the degree of social and cultural interaction between less senior figures and outside formal institutional or party structures,” he wrote in the Washington Post. “The sorts of conversations taking place were not merely pragmatic and strategic discussions among the leadership. They drew a diverse range of actors into cultural dialogues about philosophy, history and the role of religion in politics. Participants told me how these interactions shifted their negative cultural stereotypes of the other side.
In a fascinating 2010 essay translated by Robin into English, Faris Kamal Nadhmi, a prominent Iraqi left intellectual and activist, laid out what Robin calls “the theoretical foundations for the Sadrist-Communist alliance in terms of Gramsci’s theory of the ‘historical bloc’”: