For decades, watching Cinemax could trigger a spiral of shame. Many voyeurs waited until their parents or spouse fell asleep, then crawled out of bed, tiptoed down to the living room and watched “The Great Bikini Bowling Bash” at low volume in the dark.
It’s now safe to turn the lights on.
The premium cable channel, whose own executives have called it “Skinemax,” has dabbled for years with original programming that didn’t involve a sudden tryst with the pizza delivery guy. But with “The Knick,” it has its first genuine heart-stopper, a bloody good medical drama set in 1900, a time when surgery was about as primitive as a game of Operation.
Using Red Dragon digital cameras that capture an unprecedented level of detail in low light, the series boasts a great look; a great star in Clive Owen, playing a doctor addicted to heroin and rage; and, most important, a great driver in Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, who filmed all 10 episodes of the first season.
“The Knick,” which premiered this month, was developed for HBO. However, Soderbergh, who won an Emmy helming the Liberace film “Behind the Candelabra” for the pay-cable giant, was intrigued by what he saw going on at HBO’s sister network, most notably the action-packed series “Banshee” and “Strike Back.”
“I kind of wanted to be a big kid at a small school,” he told reporters at a recent Television Critics Association panel in Los Angeles. “I’m glad it worked. It allowed for a smaller teacher-to-student ratio.”
Michael Begler, an executive producer and writer for the show, admits that he was curious about Soderbergh’s decision to change ships, but quickly saw the advantages of working at a place where their series is a top priority.
“I sincerely hope that we’re the groundbreakers for an entirely new chapter at Cinemax,” he said.
That sentiment echoes the big ambitions of Kary Antholis, president of programming for Cinemax and HBO miniseries. About four years ago, Antholis began to worry that Cinemax’s brand was weakening. His solution: Develop series that incorporated elements of the channel’s most popular movies, high-octane stories with a cinematic look.
“We’re going to continue to focus on sophisticated genre programming,” said Antholis, who recently greenlit a pilot for an exorcist-themed drama, “Outcast,” from “The Walking Dead” veteran Robert Kirkman.
Antholis, who has earned an Emmy and an Oscar for his filmmaking, is extremely hands-on — a plus in the eyes of Greg Yaitanes, who helps run “Banshee.” The network TV veteran, who won an Emmy for directing Fox’s “House,” said it’s not unusual to get a call from Antholis on a Saturday to go over a script.
“At a lot of networks, you don’t get a true vision of the person running the company,” Yaitanes said. “A lot of people try to put their voices in when it’s not necessary. This is a more seamless environment.”
He knows what it’s like to be on the ground floor of something. He was one of the original nine investors in Twitter.
“It’s a phenomenal opportunity to be an early influence,” he said. “I love building new talent.”
Cinemax has plenty of ground to make up before it gets out of HBO’s shadow. According to the media research firm SNL Kagan, HBO ended 2013 with 29.3 million subscribers, while Cinemax had 14.1 million. The debut of HBO’s “The Leftovers” drew 1.8 million viewers in just one showing. It took multiple airings, including one on HBO, for “The Knick’s” premiere to reach a comparable number.
As for those Cinemax After Dark “classics” — will there still be room for lusty Emmanuelle on the schedule?
“I don’t know at this point,” Antholis said. “I think we need to get traction with the brand and we’ll continue to re-evaluate how much of that stuff is valuable.”