In Hollywood, Big Ambitions Move To Small Screen

Cast of Broadwalk Empire i i

Step Right Up: The new HBO series Boardwalk Empire is set in 1920s Atlantic City, where corruption flows more freely than the Prohibition-banned booze. Craig Blankenhorn hide caption

itoggle caption Craig Blankenhorn
Cast of Broadwalk Empire

Step Right Up: The new HBO series Boardwalk Empire is set in 1920s Atlantic City, where corruption flows more freely than the Prohibition-banned booze.

Craig Blankenhorn

Critics have been decrying the creative decline of Hollywood pretty much since D.W. Griffith left the scene.

But today's Hollywood is plenty creative, author Edward Jay Epstein says. It's just that the most sophisticated stuff is showing up on TV screens.

"We've had a role reversal," Epstein tells NPR's Guy Raz. "Now, people go to television, especially pay television and premiere cable television, to watch programs like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire and Damages. And they go to movies to see comic books: Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Avatar."

Epstein wrote the book The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies. He says the dichotomy in Hollywood these days is a product of fundamentally different business realities between the big and small screens.

"The movie business is basically driven by marketing departments that have only one audience that they can guarantee to turn out on Friday and Saturday nights," he says. "And that audience is teenagers and youth.

"Television, on the other hand, especially pay television, runs on a completely different business model. They have to stop people from canceling their subscriptions. So they have to reach the head of the household, who pays the bills. ... So they have basically put more and more money into original programming to keep the adult audience paying the bill."

The fundamental mission of a network like HBO — which pioneered original dramas on cable with The Sopranos, The Wire and now Boardwalk Empire — isn't to make "art" or even to build viewer numbers.

"A top HBO executive told me," Epstein says, "that they would rather have a program that had very low viewership but very high critical acclaim, especially in The New York Times and elite media, because when people read those kind of stories about The Sopranos or The Wire, their reaction is, 'We cannot give this up!' "

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