HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’ duels ‘Game of Thrones’ for geek love
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San Francisco: Even as the much-anticipated HBO comedy “Silicon Valley” debuted on Sunday, some of the real technorati were more interested in one of the network’s other shows: “Game of Thrones”.
“Silicon Valley” fans of the dragon-filled fantasy drama celebrated the return of the series, which kicked off its fourth season on Sunday evening. The philanthropic group HackCancer threw a Game of Thrones theme party at the San Francisco Armory over the weekend and watch parties took place throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
Mikael Berner, founder of Mountain View, California-based software startup, EasilyDo Inc., was one of those who got together with friends to follow the battle for the Iron Throne—and then skipped “Silicon Valley”, which aired right afterward. He said Hollywood often misses the mark when trying to capture Silicon Valley life.
“I prefer shows that aren’t too connected with my reality,” Berner said. “I just find myself judging everything—like, ‘We don’t code like that,’ and, ‘Larry doesn’t walk around with Google Glass on; Sergey does.’ It’s not as fun.”
Berner illustrates how even amid a blaze of hype for “Silicon Valley”, a satirical program from Office Space creator Mike Judge, some of the digerati were shrugging their shoulders. That continues a vein of indifference toward techie-oriented entertainment.
Reality show “Start-Ups: Silicon Valley”, which was produced by Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, flopped in 2012. “Betas”, the Amazon.com Inc.-produced comedy about life at a software start-up, was recently not on a list of shows that was renewed.
For “Silicon Valley”, HBO courted attention with events tailored to the technology industry. The cable channel held a screening for the show last week in Redwood City, California, not far from the headquarters of Oracle Corp. and Electronic Arts Inc. Elon Musk of Tesla Motors Inc. and venture capitalist Michael Arrington were among the attendees.
HBO has put on similar red-carpet affairs to build buzz for its other shows—including a screening of “Game of Thrones” last year in San Francisco where technology influencers rubbed elbows with the cast and creators.
Those tactics haven’t helped other Silicon Valley-themed entertainment become hits. For Ashton Kutcher’s portrayal of the Apple Inc. co-founder in the movie “Jobs”, the actor held several screenings last year for technology executives, including one at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and one in San Francisco.
Another took place at the Los Altos Hills, California, mansion of Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner, according to two people who attended the event. Musk, Yahoo! Inc. CEO Marissa Mayer, Salesforce.com Inc. CEO Marc Benioff, venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and a roomful of other Silicon Valley heavy-hitters were there, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the event was private.
Yet none of that translated to “Jobs” becoming a hit. The movie has a 27% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and it landed in seventh place on its opening weekend. “Jobs” has brought in total worldwide ticket sales of $35.9 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
With “Silicon Valley”, HBO took aim at the same technology-savvy young adults who are ditching monthly cable subscriptions for cheaper, online options from Amazon and Netflix Inc.
“It’s kind of like a two-fer,” said Ken Doctor, an analyst with Newsonomics, a media consulting firm. “It’s another original series, which they pioneered, but aimed directly at the cord-cutter generation.”
Netflix, the largest subscription streaming service, surpassed HBO last year, posting 24% growth in paid U.S. subscribers and capturing tons of publicity with shows like “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black”. While HBO has hits like “Game of Thrones” and the buzzy “True Detective”, U.S. subscribers were basically flat last year at 28.6 million, according to researcher SNL Kagan.
With Judge, HBO bet on a creator who specializes in irreverence. Judge created the animated MTV hit about two maladjusted teenagers who aspire to delinquency with “Beavis and Butt-head”, later co-created “King of the Hill”, about a Texas propane salesman and his wacky neighbors, and the 1999 film “Office Space”, which follows a technology worker who schemes to get himself fired from a ho-hum job and winds up getting promoted.
For “Silicon Valley”, Judge drew on his own experiences living in East Palo Alto, California, and Sunnyvale, California, in the late 1980s when he worked at technology companies, he said in an interview with Bloomberg TV.
“It wasn’t a great experience for me, but I got a lot of comedy material out of it for later,” Judge said.
Judge and collaborator Alec Berg, whose writing and producing credits include “Seinfeld” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien”, also researched Silicon Valley culture, speaking with executives and others who worked there.
“Every time we talked to somebody, practically everything they said, you’d go: Oh my God, that’s so much funnier than what we had,” said Berg. “That’s a better story idea, and you can’t even fit that one in. If we get another season, we’re going to have to do that season two.”
Being true-to-life was part of the problem for some technology workers who decided not to watch Silicon Valley. In contrast, “Game of Thrones” has established itself as a bona fide escapist hit as the series averaged 14.4 million gross viewers per episode last season, the most of any show on the network since “The Sopranos” in 2004.
“When you watch shows like this, it’s not exactly taking you somewhere else,” he said. “It’s all these landmarks you recognize. It’s like work all over again.”
Others were wary of the bad vibes the show could give to the rest of the world.
“I’ve worked in the industry for 20 years, and I like to see more of the positive stories told about why it’s a good career to have,” said Adam Nash, CEO of personal finance software maker Wealthfront Inc. As funny or entertaining as the show might be, it might continue the trend of making it look unappealing to work in high-technology jobs.
Nash was probably disappointed. The hypocrisy of technology companies purporting to improve people’s lives, while making billions of dollars monetizing their information or selling them gadgets was a recurring joke on Sunday in Silicon Valley.
“I hope the show is more about positivity because there are a lot of people who are passionate in Silicon Valley, who want to better the world,” said John Shahidi, whose start-up Shots Mobile Inc. makes a selfie app. “People really feel that way. I hope viewers get to really see and understand what it takes to build something.”
With assistance from Anthony Palazzo in Los Angeles.