Clash of the Cable Titans

July 9, 2009

HBO, enjoy the crown while it lasts.. -Showtime

For years, HBO and Showtime have been rivals in the same way the Yankees and the Red Sox were rivals. Up until 2004, the Yankees had won 26 championships and the Sox had won five — none in nearly a century. Now, however, the Red Sox have won two titles in six years to make the rivalry a real argument. We may be seeing Showtime make a Red Sox-like surge to threaten HBO’s reign.

Can you believe it has been two whole years since “The Sopranos” pulled the plug on us? For me, it’s only been about one year since I left my basement due to the depression that the program’s finale ended up causing, but on the other hand, things haven’t been much better for Time Warner’s pay cable network since then either. Look at this run that HBO enjoyed: Tony Soprano and his crew from 1999-2007, Carrie Bradshaw and “Sex and the City” from 1998-2004, the dysfunctional funeral home family in “Six Feet Under” from 2001-2005 and the Baltimore boys in “The Wire” from 2002-2008. Those were all juggernauts; applauded by critics and viewed by large audiences as well. During this successful period, the also-ran and ugly sister pay cable network Showtime was struggling to even compete.

HBO still has the fantasy-life “Entourage,” the Larry David-created “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and a possible hit in the vampire show “True Blood,” but it no longer monopolizes the premium cable channel audience. It’s become a battle for the pop culture throne, and Showtime might even be winning right now. It has emerged with a string of bold, dark shows that together have Showtime being viewed as the edgy and hip network and being viewed by the edgy and hip audience. “Weeds” (pot-selling suburban widow), “Californication” (sex addict),    “Nurse Jackie” (prescription drug addicted nurse), “Dexter” (nice serial killer) and “United States of Tara” (split-personality disorder mom) have all contributed to the rebranding.

They’re competing in marketing the shows, too. Last year, HBO marketed “True Blood” with a branded “synthetic blood nourishment” and Showtime marketed “Dexter” by literally staging blood-soaked scenes in prominent cities, like having fake blood erupt from the huge fountain outside the Paris Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. They’re back at it this year and don’t think one network doesn’t know what the other is doing. For “True Blood,” HBO recently ran a campaign that included a cross-promotion with BMW’s Mini USA in which the car marketed itself to vampires, posted blog entries on Gawker supposedly written by a vampire and took out a full page ad in the LA Times. Showtime, meanwhile, one-upped HBO (or 12-upped it) by buying full-page ads on the front page of the same paper for 13 straight days to market “Dexter.”

It was reported this year that Showtime now reaches 16.5 million households, the most ever for the 32-year-old network. HBO has the new season of “Entourage” premiering this Sunday, is reuniting the cast of “Seinfeld” on “Enthusiasm” this fall and its next big venture, HBO Go, is an online site that will stream its library for subscribers. Your move, Showtime.