The man in charge of programming for the nation's leading pay-TV service believes his organization may prove to be the conscience of the networks. Michael Fuchs is senior vice-president in charge of programming for Home Box Office, basically a movie channel, serving over 6 million cable households, each of which pays around $10 per month for the service.
Of the nearly 20 million cable subscribers today, almost one-third are HBO people. Analysts estimate 90 percent of all homes in America will be wired for cable by the end of the century. If HBO maintains its current phenomenal rate of growth, it will soon be one of the country's most powerful entertainment monoliths.
And chief programmer Michael Fuchs may thus be considered America's leading tastemaker.
When we spoke, he was ensconsed in his lavish office in the Time-Life Building (Time-Life owns HBO) on what is turning into New York City's cable row, the Avenue of the Americas, just two blocks west of Madison Avenue. Mr. Fuchs got a bit upset when I suggest that, perhaps, HBO isn't doing quite enough public-service programming.
"We are not the public airwaves. There's no mandate here to do public service. I think we have an obligation to do interesting, different, provocative programming -- original programming. We are a blockbuster movie channel, top movies like 'Jaws,h without commercials. We put on one-man shows featuring Robin Williams, Diana ross, George Carlin, Richard Pryor. Pay TV is an enormously popular product and we plant to continue giving our subscribers programs of that caliber."
Would it be fair to say that a cultural cable channel like ARTS may be identified as, say, the channel of the American Ballet Theater, while Home Box Office might be identified as, say, the channel of "Wayne Newton in Las Vegas?"
"You think there's something wonderful about doing ballet and opera?" he answers. "Anyway, we are not a Las Vegas channel or girly shows. You came in and talk about our Las Vegas shows rather than our Consumer Report show or our science show or our new sociological "Remember When" show.
"I don't care if we did get Lily Tomlin in Las Vegas -- that's only a matter of geography. We got Bette Midler in Cleveland. We capture performance. We plan to do theater like it's never been done before. That's not what I have been working on for five years.
"I put Barry Manilow on in performance -- that's what people spend $15, $20, have the best music show, unencumbered by the kind of guest stars the networks would have added to broaden the audience. I don't want to flatten my product.
"Sure I want HBO to be the most commercially successful service -- but the way to do it is not to make each show homogenized. It is to try to hit as many elements of the viewership as possible, without diluting the show. That's why I put Disney on in the afternoon when the kids come home from school. I don't put Mickey Mouse into a Wayne Newton special and then add a stripper to give the show across-the-channel appeal. That's not the way pay cable gets its audiences.
"I think that when an audience is given a '60 Minutes,' they eventually embrace it. But the commercial network system is so competitive that it can't give shows a chance to find their audiences, to grow on people. I'd like to think that we will be a little bit less competitive that the commercial networks and will be able to do more specialized things."
How about news programming?
"I think that one of the things the networks do best is their news-type programming. I think you'll be seeing even more of that. And, if we have forced that to happen [by superior entertainment programming on cable] I feel thatm is our public service. Maybe we will prove to be the conscience of the networks by making them more competitive. If they are forced to react to the consumer more than they have in the past, I think we will have performed a great service."
The newest original programming of this self-designated conscience of the networks is an eight-part monthly series of which started airing on HBO in June, a sequel to last year's "Time Was," this time around titled "Remember When." Its main claim to originality is the use of "Ultramat," a video process enabling host Dick Cavett to participate in great moments of past history . . . like reclining on a deck chair on the ill-fated Titanic.
I viewed the first of the series and, while I admired some of the rare newsreel shots, I spent a good deal of my time transfixed with anxiety for fear the ubiquitous Cavett was going magically to appear in every historical scene. It was a well-meaning entertainment gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless, which served mainly to distract rather than amplify what might otherwise have been a fascinating history of radio. It is the kind of gimmick almost any news organization might consider for a moment or two, then discard.
However, some of the other nonfilm HBO features recently have been diversified: coverage of Wimbledon, Orson Bean hosting a science Q& A show, a TV adaptation of the play "Vanities," the best of Consumer Reports, Linda Ronstadt in Concert, etc.
But movies are really what HBO is all about-- what have been the most popular films?
"I don't know -- I suppose 'The Sting,' 'Rocky,' 'Cuckoo's Nest.'"
Then I ask a question that has bothered me for some time. Aside from the movie blockbusters, many of the films on HBO are seldom- shown cult films, of interest to film buffs mainly because of their innovative and sometimes compulsive directors, such as Samuel Fuller, John Carpenter, Michael Ritchie, Sam Peckinpaugh, etc. Why does the HBO program guide never list the director?
"I didn't even know we showed cult films," he says. "We show the best we can get and, occasionally, they're not exactly Academy Award material. It's only people like you who care about the director, anyway."
But many of the HBO selections I have seen are guilty of R-rated violence, sex, and coarse language, which may be chosen because they supposedly appeal to late-night viewers.
What does Mr. Fuchs foresee in cable by 1990?
"I belive you are going to see a much more fragmented, fully developed telecommunications world. You'll have information retrieval cable interacting with computers much more. The era of the home computer is here, and your TV set will be the source of much more information than it is right now. It will be interconnected in more than one way with the cable, the computer, and maybe the telephone. And I think big big screens will be in every home."
What about videodiscs and video cassette recorders?
"I'm a bit skeptical about discs. Because of their recording capability, VCRs [videocassette recorders] are a much better option for the consumer. But I think, as in the case of stereo equipment now, the TV set will remain the basic equipment and people will add options."
Mr. Fuchs takes a deep breath and smiles, indicating that he really isn't usually the angry young man he may have appeared to be. "I think that the 1980s will be the period when all the amazing versatility of TV and cable is realized.
"To be a part of this business, is like holding on to the tail of a comet."
Well, this particular comet -- Home Box Office -- has just announced that starting in January it will remain on the air 24 hours a day, instead of the mere 9 or 10 hours it offers now.
Are you ready for more Barry Manilow in concert, wherever he is?