Showtime and HBO rivalry elevates the quality of television

By Alex Frail

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story



Showtime or HBO? It’s an argument my friends and I have more often than I can tell you. Few shows have achieved the excellence in writing like Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” or “Episodes.” Then again, HBO is king of the Emmys. Just this year it raked in 19 trophies, buoyed by the excellent “True Detective.” Comparatively, Showtime won four. Regardless of which network reigns over television, our debate has been misguided. Together, the TV titans have churned out a generation of riveting television.

Showtime’s programs have failed to gain as much traction as many of their HBO counterparts. “Party Down,” a comedy that should be listed with immortal names like “Arrested Development” and “30 Rock,” failed in its sophomore season despite critical raves. Low Nielsen ratings killed the show’s chance at a third year.

Despite the strong cast led by Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan and Jane Lynch, the catering comedy lurked in obscurity for its two seasons. Both Scott (“Parks and Recreation”) and Lynch (“Glee”) opted for more promising parts on basic cable. The mishandling of comedic gold seems to be a fixture of the network’s past.

In 2011, the British/American crossover “Episodes” premiered to stellar reviews. Three years later, the program still draws raves and Showtime has renewed it for its fourth year. The show stars Matt LeBlanc as a fictionalized version of himself, a role that earned him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in 2012. The “Episodes’” pilot contains more laughs than most basic cable sitcoms accumulate in a season’s run.

Showtime also draws the star power that once was reserved for HBO. Claire Danes famously said to NPR that she “wanted to be a part of that Renaissance,” referring to her return to television and taking on the role on “Homeland” as CIA analyst Carrie Mathison. Similarly, both Kristen Bell and Don Cheadle pursued the small screen in “House of Lies.” Before his fatal overdose in February, revered actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had signed onto a Showtime pilot.

HBO has long drawn actors to its hallowed screens. Steve Buscemi abandoned the silver screen for the Atlantic City of “Boardwalk Empire” and “True Detective” nabbed three A-listers with Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson and Michelle Monaghan. The network recently confirmed that season two would star both Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn. While maintaining this magnetic draw for actors, HBO has also maintained its vise grip on award season.

The network’s prominence comes from its high profile programs. Most recently, “Game of Thrones” grew from a promising fantasy crossover to a culturally significant behemoth. Its pilot, viewed by 2.2 million viewers, enticed audiences worldwide so much that its fourth season finale amassed over 7 million viewers. The adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” also scored a whopping 94 on Metacritic this year.

Showtime’s analogous shows, namely “Dexter” and “Homeland,” struggled to reach such a reception. “Dexter’s” series finale, despite dismal writing and a complete mishandling of Dexter and Deb’s fate, reached its highest ratings ever with 2.8 million people tuning in. Similarly, “Homeland’s” third season finale drew 2.4 million viewers.

Another Showtime favorite, “Ray Donovan,” started strong with 1.56 million viewers in its second episode, but dropped to .7 million this year. Its critical reviews were little more than lukewarm.

Showtime’s magnum opus of the moment, “Masters of Sex,” finds itself in the best position to challenge HBO. With stellar ratings and a blooming fandom, the period piece about Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson has the most promise for the network. The series also gives Lizzy Caplan the shot at TV excellence she should have received on “Party Down.”

Numbers and ratings will never end the rivalry or the debate over which network reigns supreme. Important to take away, however, is the caliber of television from both camps. Even if Showtime falls short of HBO’s ratings and awards, the networks complement each other by demanding excellence in writing.

We’ll soon see once again why these networks have fundamentally changed television. “The Affair,” already acclaimed prior to its release, debuts on Oct. 12. The drama will star Dominic West from “The Wire” and examine the psychological trauma attached to extramarital affairs.

Over on HBO, the mere rumor mill of “True Detective’s” sophomore outing has kept bloggers and magazines awake at night for months now. That’s a powerful testament to writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto’s masterpiece. Now that Farrell and Vaughn have been confirmed, there’ll be months more of anticipation leading up to season two.

So, Showtime or HBO? I choose both. The decades’ long rivalry has revolutionized television for us lucky viewers and the fierce competition promises years more of entertainment and ingenuity to come.


Alex Frail can be reached at [email protected]