It’s not Fantasy. It’s HBO.

By Jacob Klein on Oct 31, 2011 to Game of Thrones, HBO Watch Originals, True Blood

Given the landscape of today’s fantasy-filled entertainment world, it may be difficult for some readers to remember a time when vampires, wizards, and knights in shining armor weren’t the award winning, universally loved premium cable network flag-ships they are today.  Of course there has always been a strong, fanatical legion of fantasy loving folk out there but it was only relatively recently that it was considered acceptable, dare I say “cool” to be caught reading the third 1000 page installment of George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.  

It would be a stretch to say HBO is the cause of this shift in our collective appreciation of the genre but fair to say that it was one of the leaders in bringing it into the mainstream.  Through award winning programs like True Blood and Game of Thrones, HBO is pushing the boundaries of fantasy in ways that have never been attempted.  And now, with the announcement of Dark Tower on HBO, a new sci-fi fantasy series based on a series of novels by Stephen King, an HBO subscription might just be the best present any self-professed geek could receive this Christmas.

Fantasy seems to fail on a lot of other networks for several reasons.  A show can always be plagued by bad writing or horrible casting but what separates HBO from other networks is it’s uncanny ability to secure amazing artists and content while providing these ‘magic-workers’ with the funding they need to pull it all off.  Could you imagine Game of Thrones on The CW sans fully funded costuming, sets, locales and actors?  It would have been a Westeros-sized disaster and millions of otherwise fantasy-neutral people all over the world would have never picked up George R.R Martin’s book.

Creating award-winning, life-changing content isn’t as simple as throwing copious amounts of money at a pilot and assuming everything will turn out spectacularly.  It took the entertainment industry decades to figure out that people wanted more superheroes, Jedi, ninjas, pirates and other fantastical, formerly ‘nerdy’ characters all over their televisions.  In 1995, if someone would have told you that a live action Lord of the Rings movie was going to be made in the near future and that it would win an Academy Award for best picture, you would have assumed that they’d been glamoured.  Today, if you take a look at the top five grossing movies in any given year you’ll probably be reading off names such as Iron Man, Avatar and Harry Potter.

Not only does HBO secure these fantasy properties and others for replay on its networks,  it is now actively creating original, high-quality, fearless fantasy programs that please fans of the source materials as well as viewers who wouldn’t have otherwise thought twice about a show featuring Vampires in the Louisiana bayou.  This is why HBO’s contributions have played such an important role in the fantasy’s transition from niche to mainstream. The network has created programs that aren’t merely targeted at 20-something males, in fact many of their shows are being watched and loved by a female majority!    The base of people from which a fantasy program can appeal to grows wider and HBO is helping to extend that boundary even further.

As if Game of Thrones and True Blood weren’t enough to entice the everyday fantasy fan to premium cable, the announcement of Dark Tower on HBO is just icing on the cake. Couple that with a previous announcement securing Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ for a reported six seasons and one begins to wonder whether or not the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons took over at HBO headquarters.  Not that anyone is complaining as Game of Thrones enjoyed huge ratings numbers that are sure to go even higher for season 2, True Blood continues to be the network’s #1 program while Avatar and the Harry Potter movies are both hot On Demand picks.  Not to mention the fact that fantasy-themed programs such as these lend themselves very well to branding and licensing deals.  And who doesn’t like seeing their favorite actors speaking at conventions around the world?

In this brave new world where loving fantasy is mainstream and everyone is trying to grab their slice of the pie, HBO seems to have found that elusive formula that’s worked so well for their non-fantasy programs all along– Hire the best people in the world, finance them sufficiently, step back and watch the magic happen.   It’s not a fantasy, my friend.  It’s HBO doing what HBO does best.

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  • Thanks for the reply Dreamlife. I wasn’t calling out the CW specifically because I know they’re doing more than most to bring fantasy shows to the masses. Honestly I think they would probably do a better job than NBC, ABC or CBS would. I could have named any of them. We’ve just been subject to a LOT of bad fantasy programs with tiny budgets and not much investment from a lot of networks. I’m glad HBO takes it to the next level :)

    Thanks again for the comment!

  • Dreamlife

    Nice article, but I have to defend The CW. Supernatural is one of the best TV series and part of the reason is the writers are allowed to take it to very dark, scary places.

    That said, I am glad HBO is finally embracing the fantasy genre, because there are so many dramatic stories to be told and with fantasy there is room for much more imagination and creativity in the way stories are told.

    I can’t wait for Game of Thrones season 2. I am not happy with the direction True Blood has been going the last 2 seasons, but without the success of True Blood Game of Thrones would probably not have been picked up.

    Also, The Dark Tower series sounds like it could be another hit for the network.

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