A Lannister or a Snow? Social Class and HBO

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When discussing social class and the HBO brand, it is more worthwhile to examine the pieces that make up the whole product.  By that, I mean to look at the shows, documentaries, and films HBO chooses to broadcast and see who they relate to various demographics.  We have already established in previous blogs that HBO advertises itself as a premium services, and aims to capture the audience with high quality original programming.  However, this does not mean HBO as a brand is used exclusively to those of the Upper and Upper-middle social classes.  Rather, HBO, at least in the United States, is considered by most to be “an affordable luxury” and therefore consumed by many parts of society.  That established, I would like to argue that the programming on HBO, although diverse and high quality, still appeals to an upper-middle and upper class mentality and however intentional or unintentional, produces programming that looks at our world through this lens,

The three shows I think most represent HBO and its relationship to social class, are Girls, The Wire, and Game of Thrones.

As a brief introduction, Girls is a comic look at the assorted humiliations and rare triumphs of a group of girls in their mid-20s.  I admit, I have never seen the show, however preliminary research shows that although very well written, and well produced, Girls is extremely limited in its representation of millennials, woman, and New Yorkers, which I would argue are the three main groups it seeks to engage.  The issues, as briefly outlined in this article by Forbes Magazine, include a lack of perspective about how millennials are living and their actual perspective on money and social issues.  In Girls, although all the characters all have only basic jobs, and despite what preliminary advertisements display, within the show itself there is little to no discussion of money or  financial struggles, which is a key issue for many 20-somethings today, especially those who live in NYC.  Additionally, the show has a strong lack of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity.  I feel this speaks to the upper and upper-middle tendencies of HBO as a brand because it is catering to those who, although they find the struggles of the characters in Girls entertaining, would not be concerned with the fact that money has not been discussed, nor is there a strong diversity amongst the characters, because this is more reflective of the world their social-class is seated in.

Yet, in seeming opposition to this patter, HBO’s The Wire, is concentrated on the often-futile efforts of police to infiltrate a West Baltimore drug ring headed by Avon Barksdale and his lieutenant, Stringer Bell, and  the media’s role in addressing – or failing to address – the fundamental political, economic and social realities depicted over the course of the series.  Nobody who has seen this show can argue that it does not do an incredible, through, and realistic depiction of the struggles of working and lower class people.  So much so in fact, that it is currently being studied at universities across the country, including Harvard and Boston University.  However, although this representation is very well done and a great step forward for addressing major social issues in public media.  I would point out that it is not a following of these lower and working class individuals that love and are interested in the show.  It is an academic interest from those of the upper and upper middle classes of society that have embraced this program and look to get a greater perspective on our world from the events it portrays.

Lastly, Game of Thrones has captured the attention and wonder of millions across the globe. As a very brief summation, Game of Thrones is about the struggle of various people and families for power and specifically the Iron Throne in a fantasy world based on the books by George R. R. Martin.  It is a media phenomenon and has repeatedly been the most pirated show ever.  Once again, this is a show with a diverse cast portraying those of many social classes.   It has even been praised by some as empowering those with disabilities or from poor circumstances to work harder for upward mobility in their social situations.  As stated in the title of this blog, we have the Lannisters, who seem to rule all the lands one way or another, and we have men like John Snow, a bastard and low in social status.  I would also argue that fantasy is one of the most approachable generas for those of all social classes, and there is in this show characters that all of us can relate to. Yet, the premise of the show is the struggle for power, for those who have it to maintain it, and for those who have none to gain more.  Once again, we see this mentality supported by the lens with which HBO develops its programming.

In conclusion, I do not feel that there is anything wrong with this perspective for the development of programming and this way of looking at the world.  As a business model I feel it is safe to say it has worked well for HBO so far, and that they will continue on this path into the foreseeable future.  Girls, The Wire, and Game of Thrones can of course be enjoyed by those from all walks of life, and many may see other aspects of them not outlined above that speak to a more inclusive culture.  But for now, I would distinctly classify HBO as a brand for the upper and upper-middle class of the United States and even abroad.

Girls Trailor

The Wire Trailor

Game of Thrones Trailor

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HBO As A Cross-Cultural Brand

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Outside of the United States, HBO is available in more then 50 countries with over 35 million subscribers!  Since 1991 HBO has overseen a number of extensions of its branding across the world, and has adapted its programming and distribution accordingly.  However, while reflecting on this it is interesting to consider the way viewers consume media around the world and their cultural approach to it.  In the United States, we are surrounded by media all the time and culturally we have a very encompassing view of it.  We love HBO because of the high quality programming, but we also enjoy the immediate access provided by HBO Go.  Yet, in other countries like China, the media is more influenced by the government, and the values they look for in the programming would be different then those in the United States.

The solution?  Give them both.

In most outlets across the world, HBO offers access not only to original programming that was produced for the United States, but also programming that is exclusively distributed or produced for that regions audience.   As seen on the website for HBO-Europe, in this market HBO offers shows and documentaries produced around Europe and that speak to their culture and specific interests.  The issue of language is of course important to address, but it is worth noting that a lot of the younger demographics internationally speak English, and these would be the ones primarily targets by the HBO brand.  In addition, the tradition of adding subtitles in a variety of languages to media is already a well established practice in the industry.

This mixed strategy of localized programming with standard distribution and branding seems to have worked well for HBO so far.  I would say that their brand very accurately represents the ever troubling condition of how consumers are all so very different and yet very much the same.  Television, film, and documentaries move us all, and although we might spend various amounts of time consuming media in a multitude of forms, there is something about the dramatic programming of HBO that is very translatable.  The question I now wonder is, the international market seems to have access to all of the original programming from the United States.  I wonder when we will have access to the incredible projects made for their countries in return.

HBO Europe Timeline