BBC 'could learn about drama from HBO'

Call for Corporation to copy US channel's 'high-quality, high-risk' attitude

Arts Correspondent,Arifa Akbar
Tuesday 02 February 2010 01:00

The US pay-television channel Home Box Office (HBO) has become a global phenomenon with a Midas touch for discovering the next big series.

So extensive are its successes – Sex And The City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Wire, to name a few – that the artistic director of the British Film Institute (BFI) has suggested the BBC could learn from HBO's willingness to champion high-quality, high-risk drama and comedy. Eddie Berg is so impressed with HBO that he is bringing its leading lights to Britain for a special tribute from 23 to 25 April. He hopes the two presidents of the company will be joined by producers of its hit shows.

Mr Berg said that while HBO operated in the private sector, it appeared to display a "public-sector sensibility" by taking risks in its choice of dramas, and refusing to be led by viewing figures.

Using The Wire as an example, he said HBO took a "commendable" decision to commission five series of the acclaimed Baltimore crime drama, despite it attracting a "niche audience".

"Risk drama is part of the problem for the BBC," Mr Berg said. "Could it take that kind of risk? The Wire, for example, which started on HBO, was something so niche. That's the big challenge for the BBC... it's interesting to explore the HBO model. It's doing lots of things you would expect a public broadcaster to do.

"When people think of British drama around the world, we think of quality costume drama at the BBC, but what we don't think of is [it showing] series dramas like The Wire or The Sopranos, which are contemporary and edgy.

"We have to ask ourselves why can't the BBC seem to be able to do this with all the resources it has?"

Mr Berg said he admired the fact HBO had such a "public-sector sensibility embedded in it", even though it was involved in one of the most aggressive television markets in the world.

The BFI's HBO weekend will be the biggest profiling of the channel at a British venue. "We want to look at why it has become a watchword for quality drama and quality comedy," Mr Berg said. "We will critically explore the HBO phenomenon, partly to learn from it, and to really explore it in a different way than just presenting a set of shows."

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A BBC source said it was easy to applaud the success of such "buzz" television series as The Wire , screened on BBC2 last year, but the reality was that "hardly anybody watched it".

In a statement last night, the Corporation defended its "high-risk" drama output, citing the Bafta-winning Criminal Justice, Small Island, A Short Stay In Switzerland, Five Minutes Of Heaven and Being Human, which is being adapted for US TV, as big successes.

"[That is] hardly evidence of a lack of risk-taking at the BBC," the statement said. "In fact, television drama in this country is alive and well."

It insisted the BBC's role as a public broadcaster could not be compared with that of HBO, saying: "It would be quite wrong for the BBC to just cater for one audience, when different viewers tell us they value EastEnders and Ashes To Ashes as much as they do Occupation and Criminal Justice."

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