HBO’s Leftward Lurch

Christian Toto Contributor
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It’s not TV, it’s HBO.

Or, is it the pay channel version of MSNBC?

Take a peek at HBO’s programming slate and you’ll find a plethora of left-leaning content. Each Friday, Bill Maher brings his brand of liberal fury to the channel’s late-night lineup.

Recent documentaries like “Reagan,” “Teddy: In His Own Words,” “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama” and “Right America: Feeling Wronged” showed a discernible liberal bias. The latter was dubbed “drive-by journalism” by The Washington Post.

Entertainment Weekly deemed “Recount,” the HBO film detailing the Bush vs. Gore election imbroglio, a left of center affair. And who knows what to expect from “Veep,” an upcoming HBO pilot about a female vice president produced by Frank Rich, the liberal cultural critic?

HBO is producing two new films likely to rile up Red State denizens. “Game Change,” starring liberal actors Ed Harris, Woody Harrelson and Julianne Moore and directed by “Recount‘s“ Jay Roach, takes its cues from the book which slammed the McCain/Palin ticket.

A proposed miniseries on former Vice President Dick Cheney will use two unflattering sources, “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency” and a Frontline documentary dubbed “The Dark Side” as its creative blueprint.

And while HBO did broadcast conservative comic Dennis Miller’s latest comedy special “The Big Speech” last year, it seemed like the right-wing exception to a left-heavy lineup.

Brent Furdyk, editor of the Canadian-based TV Week, says it’s fair to say HBO leans left when seen through an ideological prism. HBO covered Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration but failed to offer his predecessor the same courtesy.

Just don’t think the channel is part of some Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, he says.

“They’re catering to who they think their demographic is,” Furdyk says. “[HBO] does a lot of market research. They know who watches their shows.“

Jeff Cusson, senior vice president for corporate affairs at HBO, says the channel isn’t in the business of offering a political agenda.

“We look for good storytelling, and good stories tend to stray into the political arena,” Cusson says.

Cusson points to past projects like the 2009 film “Taking Chance,“ which took a respectful look at the sacrifices soldiers make, as an example of content that might appeal to anyone pro-U.S. military, left or right.

Cusson, who says the channel doesn‘t get much feedback from subscribers regarding its political content, adds the bulk of the channel’s programming takes a while to gestate. That means it may take time before we see material addressing President Barack Obama’s presidential actions.

“With the exception of Bill Maher we don’t have stuff we turn around the next day,” he says.

Phillip Swann, president and CEO of TVPredictions.com, says HBO’s ideological bent isn’t a new development.

“HBO has been far to the left for a long time. It did not hurt them. They had ‘The Sopranos,’” Swann says. “Those days are gone.”

According to the media analysis firm SNL Kagan, HBO lost 1.6 million subscribers in 2010 even though the pay channel still leads competitors like Showtime and Starz.

“It’s the choices they have been making in original programming” he says. Swann cites HBO’s celebrated series “The Wire,” which featured a healthy balance between left and right elements, as an example of more neutral material. Compare that to “Treme,” the New Orleans drama which he paints as “off to the left.”

“A program can have a liberal slant on occasion if indeed it’s well done,” he says. ”If all the programs are slanted that way and it’s not well done, then you have two strikes against you.”

Pop culture critic Richard Walter, chair of UCLA’s graduate program in screenwriting, isn’t convinced HBO’s programming tilts left.

The Miller stand-up special “gives lie to the notion” the channel is biased, Walter says.

“They’re just good shows and quality material,” Walter says, adding that the upcoming Cheney miniseries will likely reflect commonly held negative views regarding the former vice president.

“It’s wrong to extrapolate a bias from those programs. They’re running those show because they think they’re quality shows and they’ll make money. It’s a business,“ he says.

Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center, says while older HBO programs like “Tanner ‘88” served up fictional political satire, projects like the Cheney miniseries address real-life politicians.

The network didn’t seek out Stephen Hayes’ right of center biography of Cheney when pursuing their upcoming miniseries, Graham says.

Furdyk thinks HBO’s ideological tilt could open the door for its cable competitors, especially for a scrappy network eager to differentiate itself from the pack.

Graham isn’t so sure, citing the kerfuffle over “The Kennedys“ miniseries dumped by The History Channel after pressure was applied from Kennedy family members, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

For conservative HBO subscribers suspicious that movies such as “Game Change” won’t accurately reflect the subject matter, Cusson suggests taking the entirety of the channel’s programming into account.

Presuming “Game Change” will be biased “would be unfortunate,” Cusson says. “Wait and see.”