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James Hibberd

Matt and Bob's Fireside Chat

July 14, 2006 7:33 PM

HBO and Showtime dislike being compared to each other, and for the same reason: HBO feels they are above Showtime. While Showtime also feels HBO is above Showtime. Either way, the networks don’t feel they come off well being lumped together.

But at TCA, it’s difficult to avoid comparing the two, who seem like the yin and yang of premium cable. Chris Albrecht’s master of the universe Q&A performance at the podium is the polar opposite of the low-key chat by a seated Chairman and CEO Matt Blank and Entertainment President Robert Greenblatt.

In recent Press Tours, critics have gone downright rapid while questioning the executives. I have a theory as to why this is: Most consumer critics probably don’t know whether Discovery Channel, BBC America or Comedy Central is up or down for the most recent quarter. But everybody knows that, among premium cable networks, HBO bests Showtime. Suffering by comparison leads to more aggressive questions about performance than is typically endured by any other network. Or maybe they just don’t like “Huff.”

So when Blank and Greenblatt took the stage, they kept their tone mild mannered, made no sudden moves and were profusely polite. “We know this is a difficult week for you,” Blank assured, as if speaking to a cornered grizzly. “But we appreciate you taking the time and showing up.”

Blank announced a rather nifty plan to have different bands perform the title sequence each week for the next season of “Weeds,” with acts as diverse as Death Cab For Cutie and Engelbert Humperdinck. He then ran a trailer for their upcoming series “The Tudors,” where Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays a young Henry VIII. It’s impressive, but also looks exactly like the sort of lavish historical drama that HBO recently decided to stop doing after burning through mountains of money on “Rome,” “Carnival” and “Deadwood.”

During the Q&A, most of the critics questions were refreshingly free of bloodlust, save one asking about CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves’ recent quote comparing Showtime to an “off-off Broadway play” that’s “interested in critics more than audiences.” In other words: even your new boss thinks you suck.

“Leslie was taken out of context … he was talking about the Showtime of the past … I think that was an unfortunate reprehension of something he really wasn’t saying,” Blank said. “We will always try to please you.”


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