Over a five-year period beginning in 1998, HBO premiered Sex and the City (1998), The Sopranos (1999), Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000), Six Feet Under (2001), and The Wire (2002). That’s a DiMaggio-esque streak of hits, unparalleled in the unpredictable, ego- and money-fueled world of television. Which makes sense considering that at the time the network didn’t consider itself in the television business at all: It was in the HBO business. Unlike ossified, regular old TV, HBO was an exciting new world where breasts could be bared, F-bombs could be dropped, and Brian Benben was considered a leading man. The premium channel was blessed with an executive team committed to empowering cranky creators — can you imagine giving notes to David Chase, David Simon, or Larry David? — and an operating ethos that wasn’t tied to antiquated notions like “advertising” or “ratings.” Part of what HBO was selling was prestige: These were shows unavailable anywhere else, serialized conversation starters that dominated water coolers and Internet message boards. If you didn’t want to be left behind, you’d pay for the privilege of watching them. Sure, the shows were brilliant, but it isn’t hard to game the system when you’re playing by different rules.
So HBO’s mid-decade hiccup — that creative trench that brought us Unscripted (an improvised show about George Clooney’s girlfriend’s acting class) and Tell Me You Love Me (an overly ambitious gamble on America’s appetite for televised hate-fucking) — wasn’t just a result of visionary executive Chris Albrecht being forced to resign in disgrace. It was representative of a larger shift in the small-screen landscape as even the most obscure cable channels began to realize that investing in narrative series could instantly put them on the map, or at least liberate them from the lower 400s on Time Warner’s ever-expanding grid. The more attention-getting and risk-taking their offerings, the better. HBO was still HBO. But TV? That was quickly becoming HBO, too.