Bulletin: Will HBO Be Capitalism’s Next Victim?

HBO’s new owner sees tremendous profit opportunities in the network. That’s bad news for anyone who likes good TV.

CEO of AT&T Entertainment Group John Stankey speaks in New York City, November 28, 2016. Dave Kotinsky / Getty Images

Bulletin is 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:

HBO has long favored quality over quantity. Its high-gloss productions often take years to develop and can cost millions per episode. That approach has won the network more Primetime Emmy Awards than any of its competitors over the last 16 years, with Mr. Plepler the master curator.

In recent years, Mr. Plepler has emphasized HBO’s “bespoke culture” and its enduring appeal to A-list producers and stars at a time when Netflix, Amazon and Apple have bottomless budgets. On his watch, “Big Little Lies” has brought the Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep to the network, and shows like “Barry” and “Insecure” have charmed critics.

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.”

Mr. Stankey described a future in which HBO would substantially increase its subscriber base and the number of hours that viewers spend watching its shows. To pull it off, the network will have to come up with more content, transforming itself from a boutique operation, with a focus on its signature Sunday night lineup, into something bigger and broader.

“We need hours a day,” Mr. Stankey said, referring to the time viewers spend watching HBO programs. “It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month. We need hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.”

Continuing the theme, he added: “I want more hours of engagement. Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions, which I think is very important to play in tomorrow’s world.”

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:

Mr. Plepler tried to pin down Mr. Stankey on the question of how much AT&T planned to invest. Without specifying any certain amount, Mr. Stankey said, “I do believe there needs to be stepped-up investment.”

Mr. Plepler interjected: “Let’s give him a hand for that simple sentence! That simple sentence deserves a hand!”

“Also,” Mr. Stankey said, “we’ve got to make money at the end of the day, right?”

“We do that,” Mr. Plepler responded, to scattered applause.

“Yes, you do,” Mr. Stankey said. “Just not enough.”

“Oh, now, now, be careful,” Mr. Plepler said.

HBO has, in fact, been a consistent moneymaker. Over the last three years, while allocating more than $2 billion a year to its programming, the network has made nearly $6 billion in profit.

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.

Really-Existing Enlightenment

Things are getting better every day. The standard of living is going up. An increasing number of individuals are drawn to big cities and adopt a more urban lifestyle. Poverty is receding and the backward agrarian masses, in turn, are propelled into modernity. They are also, without a doubt, becoming more educated—not just literate: they enjoy access to a rapidly expanding array of cultural goods and experiences that expose them to world culture, often for free. In the process, they leave behind the moral strictures of traditionalism and embrace a robust secular outlook. As a result, gender equality has made huge leaps forward. Scientific culture has become part of the standard educational curricula, weeding out the last remnants of religious obscurantism. Darwin’s theory of evolution is taught in kindergarten. The crippling division between the natural sciences and the social sciences is a thing of the past, and economic science is now firmly established on laws that are also those commanding the development of human societies and of nature throughout history. Science and technology have reached such a level of development that nature itself can be re-engineered—major rivers can be deflected, seas nebulized, for the welfare of all. Science and technology also project their light into the deepest recesses of human nature: while past centuries gave credence to metaphysical speculations about the inner workings of the mind, there is now a true and materialistic science of it. Cognitive neuroscience can identify genius by pointing at the morphology of the brain or detect deviant behaviors in nuce, thus preventing unfortunate events and increasing social welfare. And the code behind genetics has been made transparent to human comprehension and intervention, allowing for all kinds of beneficial manipulations, including the breeding of high-yield agricultural varieties. Of course, the way of progress is paved with hardships and obstacles. Some of them are unforeseeable and generated by progress itself. Others are deliberate and the work of deniers representing irrational attachments to superseded beliefs or, worse, “reactionary thinking, even fascism.” The former will be overcome by the all-powerful process of scientific advancement, the latter, by a re-educational regimen of “critical thinking and debiasing programs,” will show the skeptics how wrong they were and help them see the light. No, dear reader, you are not dreaming: all this is true and you live in the Soviet Union.

Or maybe you have just closed Steven Pinker’s latest book, which would not have been out of place as propaganda material in the age of Brezhnevian stagnation. Enlightenment Now has all the trappings of an official doctrine, along with the tonnage and elegance of a Soviet tractor. It mixes the cheerful idiocy of a Komsomol prep talk (“Everything is amazing”) with the somber undertones of intellectual policing (“enemies” of the Enlightenment have entered “factions of mainstream culture”). It also pummels you with data the way a Party goon would bludgeon you out of your denial of socialist progress until you accept that the official figures of the Gosplan reflect reality. For everything is going better—literally, everything. It is just that there is something wrong with people who cannot get themselves to accept the obvious.

Nicolas Guilhot in H-Diplo, reviewing Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

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’”:

The question which needs to be asked in Iraq today is the following: ’To what extent is it true to say that the Communists and Sadrists intermingle at the psychological level in terms of a perception of injustice, which would raise the possibility of the emergence of a historical bloc through their alliance, without denying the wide ideological gap between the two sides.’ It should be noted that what is meant here, fundamentally, is the popular bases and the intellectual elites of the two trends, rather than their official leadership …

… The Communist and Sadrist characters share a common ground in terms of emotions, ambitions, attitudes, and characteristics in terms of a shared view of injustice in the world. The most important thing that distinguishes them is their rejection of social inequality and their hatred of the prevailing rule, their awareness of social conflict, passion for knowledge and respect for the book, engagement in literature and art, attention to the youth, openness to different ideas, and their romantic loyalty to personal symbols.

Whereas what distinguishes the two, and separates them, is manifest in the ideological outer shell which envelops both characters. For the Communist is materialist, secularist, and positivist in thinking, whereas the Sadrist is an idealist, religious-doctrinal, and metaphysical in thinking. The Communist is interested in advancing ‘practical’, ‘human’ solutions to the dilemmas of the Iraqi situation, whereas the Sadrist is distracted by defending customs and superstitions, which are of more interest to him than the tangible and the specific, despite the modern reformist trend embedded in the practice of the Sadrist trend which, if implemented, would transport it from something like a religious doctrine, into a purely social space.

Despite the truth of this intellectual divergence, the Communists will lose more than they have already lost if they continue to distance themselves from the current flame of Sadrist populism. While the Sadrists will lose, gradually, if they continue to reject Communist rationality. Real social reform in modern history has always come about as a result of a cross-pollination of bold, religious reforming trends with secular enlightenment values, arriving at the production of the best model for a rational state.

Benedict Robin: “Faris Kamal Nadhmi And The ‘Historical Bloc’: The Theoretical Foundations Of The Sadrist-Civil Trend Alliance”

Strange English Folkways

Although some Brexit hard-liners openly talked of a leadership challenge, Mrs May was met with thunderous applause as she addressed the Tory backbench 1922 Committee on Monday night. MPs leaving the meeting said the “mood of the party is to get behind the prime minister.”

But one member noted: “The fact that MPs stood up and applauded her for five minutes means she’s screwed.”

Henry Mance and Laura Hughes in the Financial Times: “Theresa May vows to fight removal attempts after Boris Johnson quits”