HBO’s Obama Film: Another Reason to Love Pay TV

While broadcasters peddle true crime and tabloid trash, HBO still tackles the issues that matter.

Last Updated: November 3, 2009 @ 8:10 PM

God bless HBO.

In an era in which even the most niche-oriented cable networks seems determined to cheapen their brands to eke out an extra tenth of a ratings point — really, Weather Channel? Cheesy tornado movies?– HBO is one of the few networks that still seems determined to produce the best possible programming, ratings be damned.

Sure, it’s gotten more populist recently. "True Blood" and the upcoming "Game of Thorns" are clearly designed to play to big crowds, something HBO needs to maintain its subscriber base.

But whether it’s Bill Maher’s must-watch hour (sadly on hiatus till … February!), amazing stand-up specials (like last month’s Wanda Sykes hour) or a slew of interesting scripted series, HBO just keeps delivering. It says something that, even in these hard times, HBO’s subscriber base is stable.

The biggest value in an HBO subscription, however, comes courtesy of the original HBO films and documentaries.

For example, I’m glad "Grey Gardens" won Emmys — but quite frankly, it easily could have landed multiple Oscar nominations had it been released theatrically. I can’t wait to see what Tom Hanks has done with "The Pacific," coming next year.

And tonight, HBO unveils "By the People: The Election of Barack Obama," a documentary from actor-producer Edward Norton. Perhaps Norton’s star power convinced HBO to attach itself to this film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the network would’ve funded it even without a star.

HBO’s doc unit, under Sheila Nevins, consistently tackles topics most TV news organizations wouldn’t dream of touching. The broadcast networks once felt it part of their mission to bring viewers exposes such as "Harvest of Shame"; now, newsmagazines are dominated by true-crime stories (some, admittedly, very well told) and celebrity puff pieces. (Does Rihanna really require two days on "Good Morning America" and another segment on "20/20"?)

By contrast, just take a look at HBO’s catalog of documentaries. I can’t pick out one or two to praise as "bold" or "daring" because virtually all of them are. (OK, maybe not "Downtown Girls: The Hookers of Honolulu.")

I haven’t had a chance to watch "By the People" yet. I’m sure some on the right will whine about the liberal media once again canonizing President Obama.

But I think there’s plenty of value in a film that captures the truly stunning movement that resulted in Americans electing a little-known African American senator to the highest job in the land.

And there’s definitely value in a channel as consistently brilliant as HBO.

Here’s a look at what the network says is a deleted scene from "By the People":