The HBO Factor

In her essay, “Narrative Theory and Television,” Sarah Kozloff puts forth the concept that narrative theory regarding television as a medium is a three-tiered system. That is, story (“what happens to whom”), discourse (“how the story is told”), and “a third layer, schedule, ‘how the story and discourse are affected by the text’s placement within the larger discourse of the station’s schedule.'” It is on this last layer, schedule, that I wish to focus.

Scheduling dominates the television narrative as programs are required to fit into precise blocks of time, and stories are expected to be repeatedly interrupted by commercials or other “breaks,” which dictate the way in which the story unfolds. Furthermore, the specific time of the programming block often dictates the nature of the content it contains. You won’t see children’s cartoons on the Sunday night prime-time schedule. But while Kozloff’s theory certainly appears to be valid for a wide variety of television programs, she fails to mention the material that does not seem to be under the influence of scheduling.

Granted, Kozloff published this paper in 1992, before the days of iTunes, web-shows, video-on-demand, DVRs, or any of the other marvelous devices that allow us to view our favorite programs at a time and place of our own choosing. But there is the issue of HBO (thriving at the time of the article’s publication), whose media seem to exist outside of Kozloff’s system.  HBO programs run without commercial interruption. Seasons rarely remain on the same schedule from year to year, but rather start and stop with an infuriating irregularity. In the midst of its third season, Entourage took nearly a year hiatus, then released seasons 3 (part 2) and 4 back to back without interruption. Moreover, it is not uncommon for episodes to run – not seconds but minutes – over it’s allotted slot in order to ensure the story could be told properly.

My question then is this: What can we make of this apparent HBO factor? HBO programs (and to a lesser extent those of Showtime, Starz, Cinemax, etc.) clearly don’t abide by the standard scheduling norms that characterize standard broadcast conventions. Does Kozloff’s model apply to this type of television? What does it say that these programs have some of the strongest critical acclaim and strongest fanbase? Would the televised narrative be “better off” without the scheduling factor? Given the recent surge of schedule-free means of viewing television programs, it is certainly an aspect of TV narrative that merits exploration.

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