Sullivan Stapleton, left, and Philip Winchester in "Strike Back"… (Liam Daniel / Cinemax )
Reporting from New York —
For a long time, the approximately 12 million viewers who subscribe to Cinemax have pretty much known what they were going to get when they flipped to the pay-cable channel after the kids have gone to bed: big-budget Hollywood movies long past their moment and original series, such as "Zane's Sex Chronicles," meant to be watched with the lights out.
But if executives at the network have their way, Cinemax will soon become known for something else: a place to find high-caliber new entertainment from top creators such as Alan Ball and Luc Besson.
On Aug. 12, the network, so often the forgotten little sister of pay-TV powerhouse HBO, began broadcasting its first prime-time original series since it launched 31 years ago. "Strike Back" is a buddy action series about a strong and silent British operative (Philip Winchester) and his freewheeling American partner (Sullivan Stapleton). The two gleefully globetrot from one military and political crisis to another, using ingenuity and violence to settle their problems, Jack Bauer style. The show's co-executive producer and writer is Frank Spotnitz, a key figure behind "The X-Files."
It's the first of several programs that will occupy a Friday-night time period that executives hope will become as much of a destination as HBO's Sunday-night bloc. They include a television adaptation of the "Transporter" action-film franchise; a show about an ex-con in a small town that's executive produced by "True Blood" and "Six Feet Under" creator Alan Ball; and a series from Spotnitz that will be built around a female butt-kicking heroine a la "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "Salt."
The idea, the executives say, is not only to create a new vein of entertainment but to turn cable television's penchant for moral ambiguity and dislikable characters on its head.
"This is not dark programming," said Eric Kessler, the co-president of HBO, who also works heavily on Cinemax. "This is fun, sexy programming with action and humor. We want people to get their fill of things they don't necessarily see elsewhere on cable."
Kessler points out that, unlike a broadcast network — which also has a mandate for fun and humor but is limited in the amount of sex and violence it can portray — a pay channel like Cinemax can show graphic content without fear of FCC reprisal.
Given these advantages, then, why now? Kessler says that executives simply felt the time was finally right to jump into the original-programming game. But there may be a more powerful business reason.
HBO stood at the forefront of what has become a revolution in original series back when it created shows like "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos" more than a decade ago. Soon after, other cable networks were following their lead. These days, nearly every piece of cable real-estate is filled with original series. Direct Cinemax competitor Encore, the Starz sister network known for feature films, is airing several original miniseries this year. A network that just a few years ago was known for broadcasting old movies, AMC, has some of the most acclaimed series on television, while FX and Showtime take their own share of the cable audience.
But while some networks want original content so they can add viewers and thus attract advertising dollars, Cinemax needs content to maintain and increase its subscriber base. Right now, the channel's subscriber number is less than half of HBO's 28.1 million (and, as competitors are quick to point out, many of those Cinemax subscribers receive the network because they get a discount with their HBO subscriptions). If Cinemax hopes to persuade a critical mass of viewers to pay full price, it needs to add something fresh. And fresh, in an era of easily available online porn and movies, means original series. (Not that the network is halting the movies or the soft-core porn.)
Cable and satellite TV operators also must be persuaded that Cinemax has content compelling enough that those operators should then promote the channel in their advertisements, mailings and customer-service calls.
The channel does hold an advantage in its bid to create compelling original series: Many of its programming decisions are made by people who also run HBO, giving the network relationships with platinum-caliber creative types. "Transporter," for instance, unites the network with the French genre auteur Besson, who wrote and produced the films and will executive produce the series. The show, about the life of the mysterious criminal-world driver Frank Martin (played by Jason Statham in the films and Chris Vance in the TV version), is shooting and will air next year. "Banshee," the Alan Ball show, looks to shoot in the spring.
But those high-level relationships also could pose an issue: Top-level producers and showrunners generally want their work to be taken seriously. The overall context of Cinemax is, by its own executives' admission, "high-octane" and "fun."